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Nokia makes the mobile 'a full member of the internet'

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Nokia may be the most unlikely convert to the open internet model, but it is becoming one of the most enthusiastic.

Fresh from placing key aspects of its Series 60 software architecture, including the all-important mobile browser, into the open source process, it has now ported the Linux-based Apache web server, which powers many of the world's websites, to its Symbian Series 60 platform.

The Finnish giant claims this makes "the mobile phone a full member of the internet" – a statement of considerable significance, showing how far Nokia is reaching beyond its traditional world of cellcos, where open access to the net from the phone is proving ruinous to the business model.

Nokia spotted earlier than any of its rivals that the walled gardens of the cellular operators would not stay intact for long, especially in the market it is targeting most aggressively, the mobile enterprise.

For its next generation high end devices – which the company now refuses to refer to any longer as "cellphones" – to compete with notebooks and become the norm for business access, they needed to offer an internet experience as unfettered, simple and user friendly as that of the PC. This meant adopting, or improving on, the key aspects of that platform – simple user interface, choice of radio links to support the fastest and cheapest connections, IP support, unrestricted web access, and increasingly, open source software options.

As Palmsource has been doing, but on a grander scale, Nokia is melding its own operating systems with enhanced browsers and interfaces and the world of Linux, to create products that should take it into new customer bases beyond the traditional mobile operators.

First came the successful 770 tablet, Nokia's first device in recent history with no cellular radio (though with Wi-Fi and VoIP). Then it worked with Apple to develop a mobile browser to improve on the notoriously poor web experience of most mobile phones, and now it has put that browser and other Series 60 elements into open source, and announced its support for Apache.

The new version of Apache has been released via the open source developers site, Sourceforge. Net, and a PC-based gateway is also on offer. It includes a version of the popular programming language Python and supports dynamic DNS service.

Making such a strong commitment to the cellphone as an internet device also suggests that Nokia will intensify its interest in Wi-Fi and, potentially, WiMAX, since these connections currently support far faster and more effective internet operations than the cellular networks.

At a current 384Kbps on the uplink, HSDPA cannot support serious internet functions such as self-hosting and web serving, and the Apache product would sit better with a Linux/Wi-Fi mobile device than a traditional phone.

The move also seems to raise a key issue for Nokia – how far the Symbian OS, which it has long championed as the key next generation smartphone system, fits into its new strategy, geared not just to phones but to the emerging ideas of "the internet of things".

Symbian is highly tuned for mobile phones, but not necessarily for a wide variety of "things" that might be used as internet devices. In this scenario, Linux is a more logical choice, and Nokia has already made key moves to support the open source OS it once shunned for the compromises it enforces on the cellphone platform.

Also, while Symbian was once seen as a key defense against Microsoft's assault on the smartphone sector with Windows Mobile, that battle is now mainly fought at higher software layers – with mobile Java, as well as more specialised software environments like Series 60, more important than the OS itself.

Symbian could be placed into open source itself, with the agreement of its various owners – among which Nokia has by far the dominant share of the OS – but this would be a complex and political process akin to the tortuous opening up of Java by Sun.

Once Nokia looks beyond the confines of the conventional cellphone, there is far more momentum behind Linux in terms of broad platform support – from PCs to consumer devices – developer interest and real openness, making it the most likely alternative to Windows as a universal system spanning the whole range of portable wireless devices that will emerge in the coming years for business and leisure.

Copyright © 2006, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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