Nokia plays strong Linux hand withTrolltech buy
Shifts towards open source for handsets and tablets
Analysis Nokia may be strengthening its ties with major internet brands to boost its Ovi web services portal, but for a company of this scale, there must also be an agenda to set its own standards in the evolving mobile internet market on which it has staked its future. The Finnish giant's latest software acquisition, of Norwegian Linux player Trolltech, gives it a strong vehicle to launch its own bid to dominate mobile open source standards, an area where Google and Intel have already made aggressive moves. This sees the handset giant making its strongest commitment yet to Linux in its Series 60 smartphone market, and setting Trolltech's Qt platform against other would-be dominant mobile web systems like Google Android and Intel Mobilin.
Nokia is given to acquiring small, clever companies - especially as it builds up its software and web services capabilities - rather than going for the high profile, difficult merger, and Trolltech is no exception. The smaller company is mainly known for its Linux-based Qt (Qtopia) user interface and mobile software development framework, which has recently become closely associated with the OpenMoko Linux initiative and which is an alternative to the widely used Gnome GTK technology, a key technology for Motorola and Intel, but one in which Nokia may now become less interested.
The handset leader has got itself a bargain – NKr 843m (just $153.3m) for a mobile Linux platform that could give Nokia a viable position against Google Android and give it the chance to regain the initiative in mobile Linux and web interfaces, both vital technologies for companies looking to dominate the mobile internet agenda. The acquisition, which has been recommended by the board, is likely to close in the second quarter, and 66 per cent of the shareholders have already accepted the NKr16 per share offer (these include founder Haavard Nord; Vuonislahti Invest, controlled by fellow founder Eirik Chambe-Eng; Teknoinvest; and several funds managed by Index Ventures). Trolltech is publicly listed on the Oslo stock exchange.
Trolltech brings a well-respected software development framework geared to mobile devices, open source and web services. Tactically, its technologies could strengthen the competitiveness of Nokia's Series 60 and Series 40 development and user interface platforms, especially in the web services and Linux areas. The Finnish giant has been pushing its frameworks in these directions, and has open sourced part of S60, but is aware that these products come from a heritage of closed development environments and the Symbian OS operating system rather than Linux, and so could be presented as being less web-optimized than a system created from scratch for the open internet, like Android. Trolltech will help answer some of those criticisms and boost the capabilities of S60 on open platforms, as well as underpinning development of new services related to the Ovi mobile internet push. "Trolltech's deep understanding of open source software and its strong technology assets will enable both Nokia and others to innovate on our device platforms while reducing time to market. This acquisition will also further increase the competitiveness of S60 and Series 40," said Kai Oistamo, executive VP of devices at Nokia.
Strategically, Trolltech also puts a powerful weapon in Nokia's hands to take the driving seat in defining future open mobile standards, and so gaining all-important influence at the expense of the companies, such as Google and Intel, that want to come in from the PC internet world and use the web to challenge Nokia's dominance of the mobile world. "Trolltech and Nokia share the goal of accelerating the adoption of Trolltech's Qt-based technology in the commercial market and in the open source community," commented the start-up's CEO and co-founder Haavard Nord.
"The company's innovative culture and resources will give our employees new and exciting possibilities and fulfill our vision of 'Qt Everywhere'," said Eirik Chambe-Eng, the other co-founder, who rejoices in the job title of 'Chief Troll'.
This is more than the usual public relations puff that surrounds an acquisition. 'Qt Everywhere' will be a deadly serious goal at Nokia, if it wants to ensure a place at the top table when the mobile internet standards are being defined, and limit the impact of Google's Android software platform on the smartphone market.
Linux or Symbian?
In the past two or three years, Nokia has moved away from its closed platform roots and embraced Linux as well as Symbian OS, and is basing its mobile web services strategy – which CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo has made the centrepiece of his growth plan – around cross-platform software environments that run over multiple operating systems and devices (including non-Nokia, and of course including PCs, as the giant increasingly needs to support services that run on the desktop as well as the handset, bringing it head-to-head with Google and Microsoft). Some of these crossplatform elements are obvious and standard – Java, Open C and Flash for instance – but others are Nokia-driven technologies that it seeks to establish as de facto standards, with Series 60 the flagship.
One of the Finn's dilemmas is how far to shift towards Linux – whether to make proprietary SymbianOS so superior for mobile devices that it can hold its own against the open source tide, or to back away and join the Linux movement itself, focusing on higher level products for differentiation. The latter is what really matters anyway, and although Nokia will certainly not defocus hastily on Symbian, a platform it can control, while it remains so successful in high end handsets, it is almost sure to port its key software products, such as the Series 60 user interface and development environment, to Linux, which is the OS on its important Internet Tablet range, its answer to Intel's Ultra-Mobile PC. A Linux version of the S60 family would provide a direct equivalent of the top-to-bottom stack envisaged by Google for Android, but with years of R&D effort, a major developer community, and an installed base already behind it. The acquisition of Trolltech suggests this is the way Nokia will go during 2008, enabling it to accelerate its cross-platform strategy.
"The technology landscape evolves and, for Nokia, software plays a major role in our growth strategy for devices, PCs and the integration with the internet. We continue to focus on areas where we can differentiate and add more value. Common cross-platform layers on top of our software platforms attract innovation and enable web 2.0 technologies in the mobile space," said Oistamo.
Other open source initiatives
Amid the host of open source initiatives in the fragmented mobile world, Trolltech has been most closely associated with Open-Moko, porting the Qtopia application platform and user interface to the group's Neo1973 device. This gave mobile Linux developers an additional reference platform for mobile Qtopia applications besides the Trolltech Greenphone, and the new developments could bring Nokia in behind OpenMoko and greatly enhance its impact – although, more importantly for Qtopia, Nokia will of course provide far more significant reference platforms.
Nokia's own open source strategy is looking quite complicated and some rationalization will be in order soon – indeed, this is necessary across the whole industry to deliver a coherent set of technology choices for mobile open source, each with sufficient volume and developer support to attract the major vendors. In particular, Nokia has funded and supported Maemo.org, an open source operating system that is used in the Internet Tablets.
There are fundamental differences between Maemo's and Trolltech's approaches, so choices may need to be made, unless Nokia plans to keep the Internet Tablet platform entirely separate, and use Trolltech primarily to enhance Linux on the S60 smartphones. The main difference is that Maemo uses the GTK toolkit from the influential Gnome open source movement, while Trolltech uses its own Qt, now likely to be pushed as a de facto standard by Nokia. However, to complicate the picture further, OpenMoko, which will have its hopes of Nokia support raised, also uses GTK. Maemo developers are already expressing concerns that their platform, and GTK, will be sidelined within Nokia, with the giant looking to bring the tablets, as well as the smartphones, into line with Qt and Nokia Linux widgets, rather than the externally managed, and therefore less controllable, GTK.
Other key mobile Linux initiatives, apart from Android, include Intel's Moblin, based around Red Flag Midinux and Mozilla; the LiMo Foundation and Gnome Mobile and Embedded Initiative, both heavily influenced by Motorola; and the commercially most successful mobile Linux distribution to date, MontaVista, which is likely to be taken up by one of the majors as a strategic weapon.
The battle lines are being drawn rapidly, and whatever the technical pros and cons, we should see a fight to dominate the standards picture between Nokia with Qt and Linux-based S60; Google with Android; and Intel with the Moblin set of technologies. Response from Microsoft is almost inevitable, and Motorola, despite its current distractions, also needs to create a credible mobile internet software strategy, although it may seek to work within broad initiatives like LiMo rather than to set standards itself. Nokia has shown its hand strongly and reaction from its fellow challengers may be swift. They may have to spend a lot more than $153m to trump this hand.
Copyright © 2008, Wireless Watch 
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