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A Sparc of hope for Symbian

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The Symbian Foundation is being wound down - but it may yet survive, at least in name.

In fact, there's an unlikely template for the Foundation. One of life's odd little ironies is that one of the architects of this template is Symbian's biggest supporter outside Nokia today. It's Fujitsu - and it's been here before.

Overall there can be no doubting Nokia's intentions. Elop intends to streamline product development in several areas, and Symbian and Ovi have explicitly been named as candidates for liposuction. The departure of the Foundation's chief Lee Williams recently with the CFO taking over has stoked the idea that it's being wound down altogether.

But this isn't necessarily so. It appears that no final decision has been made, or if it has, it hasn't been conveyed to staff. It may be that the Foundation continues with around 20 or so staff, a considerable reduction from 100.

However, the level of Symbian activity and the existence of a Foundation are really two separate issues.

How many staff will be needed at a Foundation all depends on what the stakeholders want it the Foundation to do. It is a tiny administrative organisation, concerned with licensing and governance. Meanwhile, there are over Symbian 4,000 staff, mostly engineers, at Nokia, and hundreds more working on Symbian handsets in Japan.

There are effectively no engineers at the Symbian Foundation. It doesn't do, and has never done, development. After recent events, where does that leave it?

With Samsung and Sony Ericsson no longer regarding Symbian as competitive, and focussing their efforts on Android and/or Windows Phone 7, the Foundation doesn't really do licensing any more. With Nokia tearing up the milestone-based roadmap in favour of an incremental approach, it doesn't really do roadmaps any more, either.

In 1988 Sun set about trying to make its new RISC chip, Sparc, into an industry standard. The Sparc specs became a set of IEEE standards. In 1989 Sun handed over the administration to a non-profit external body created solely for the purpose - Sparc International. Sun reckoned that most of the potential licensees - such as ICL and Amdahl - didn't compete directly with it. But it was happy to license the chip to competitors, too. Third party manufacturers went on to create Sparc chips and add-in boards (notably Cypress, Solbourne and Weitek), but the grand vision of Sparc as an industry standard didn't quite work out.

The biggest of these licensees was Fujitsu. By the early part of the Noughties, Fujitsu's Sparc machines were outperforming Sun's, and the two came to a more formal agreement. Today, many Sun servers are rebadged Fujitsu servers.

Back to the present, where (as Symbian reminds us) Fujitsu is standing shoulder to shoulder with Nokia on Symbian. Other than Nokia, Fujitsu is the only other handset manufacturer on the Symbian board.

You'll note that Fujitsu doesn't compete directly with Nokia, although fanbois may wish it were otherwise so - a recent Fujitsu Symbian prototype features two 960x640 capacitive screens on a swivel base. Geographically, it restricts these to Japan and the Asian market.

Today, Sparc International continues, its quiet existence unremarked upon. It operates out of a very modest nondescript office in the suburbs of San Jose, in Silicon Valley. Overheads must be minimal. But it survives.

I recently highlighted one reason Nokia may want to keep an independent Foundation alive. Android today has largely succeeded where Symbian failed, in gaining broad licensing adoption. But manufacturers may rue their dependence on Google - something the Symbian Foundation's former chief executive liked to point out.

Even though Symbian is no longer the top priority for Nokia, it may be worth keeping it around, at very low expense. You never know when it might come in useful. ®

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