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New Symbian launches mobile free-for-all

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OSCON The Symbian Foundation is gagging to gain acceptance as a free and neutral mobile alternative to Windows, Linux and Apple.

Symbian's John Forsyth - he's vice president of strategy - said the rapidly forming group needs a "clean-room culture" with its own offices, and populated by technical experts from handset- and service-vendor members who don't simply echo their masters' corporate voice.

The change in culture is vital for Symbian to achieve its goal "to become the most widely used software on the planet" Forsyth said.

"One or two of the customers have massive R&D investment in Symbian - Nokia for example," he told the O'Reilly Open Source Convention (OSCON) in Portland, Oregon yesterday. "It will be easy to look at this and say: 'It's just Nokia.' I'm worried this asymmetry will mean the community doesn't grow in the appropriate way."

The Foundation also needs a system of voting that's not decided by who's biggest or has the most at stake, but is conducted on one-company, one-vote, he said.

He was speaking barely a month after Nokia, the world's largest handset manufacturer - and single largest beneficiary of Symbian - announced it was buying out other Symbian members, and would release code under an Eclipse open-source license.

The new Symbian has been boosted by having some of the world's largest service providers join up as founding members. Companies like AT&T and Vodafone are used to closed-technology gardens and the smoke and mirrors of industry lobby groups.

Open gates

Such practices risk turning off developers, but Nokia seems committed volume adoption, based on what Forsyth told OSCON.

He said the Symbian Foundation's wants to deliver a free and neutral platform, without any gatekeepers.

By open sourcing the code, Nokia thinks it can help telcos lower their R&D costs by offering a base-level operating platform that can be customized to add value. Handset providers waste money re-inventing the same operating system layer as their rivals. This is the same thinking that led to the foundation of Eclipse.

With the code under an open-source license, the hope is Symbian does not become tied to a single company or small group. Forsyth said Symbian had hit a glass ceiling, as companies - especially in Japan - were unwilling to rely on a single source for their mobile operating system needs.

Symbian had 60 per cent of the smart phone market in the first quarter of this year, according to Canalys, a market watcher. That's compared to 12 per cent for Linux, 11 per cent for Microsoft and RIM and four per cent for Apple's iPhone - six months after launch.

For the next two years at least Symbian will remain under a Nokia-shaped cloud, thanks to the huge footprint of Nokia handsets using Symbian and Nokia's huge R&D backing. The Symbian Foundation must also ensure the Symbian code base is clean of authors' proprietary intellectual property, a process that is expected to delay its release under open source.

Forsyth told The Reg the group hasn't begun yet to comb through the code, but he believes Symbian is in "pretty good shape." ®

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