Nokia steps up open source efforts
Opens Series 60 browser engine, more to follow
In its efforts to beat Microsoft to establish the de facto standard software platform for mobile devices, Nokia is adopting the same tactic used by similar challengers in the computer world – going open source.
The company emerged with surprising speed from the closed source world of mobility last year, working with Apple on an open browser, backing mobile implementations of the open source Java platform Eclipse, and setting up the opensource.nokia.com developer site.
Now it has taken its most significant step yet, releasing the engine that powers the cornerstone of its software strategy, the Series 60 interface.
Nokia has been licensing Series 60, which runs on the Symbian smartphone operating system, to other vendors in a bid to create a de facto standard. This effort has gained importance as the competitive differentiation on high end handsets has shifted from the operating system itself to the higher layers, notably the user interface and browser.
Gaining multivendor support for Series 60 was the first step in the effort to take, on mobile devices, the role enjoyed by Microsoft on the PC – thereby mounting a major challenge to the Windows giant as enterprise and consumer activity shifts inexorably from the PC to mobile devices.
The next stage is to go fully open source, with the aim of accelerating uptake and creating a major developer community – always Microsoft's trump card in any battle against Windows and the .Net software architecture.
Nokia's first move is to release to the open source community the engine underlying the Series 60 mobile browser – a step that should also dampen the hopes of Palmsource, now part of Linux browser maker Access of Japan, of creating a de facto open source standard in this area.
With most smartphone-oriented business models now relying heavily on internet access, it is imperative that the browsing experience is improved, and the company that succeeds in making this breakthrough will gain enormous power in new generation handsets.
This is particularly critical for Nokia, which has put mobile enterprise – increasingly looking towards browser-based functions such as web services – at the heart of its growth plan, and in so doing, is becoming increasingly focused on mobile internet access (to the extent of releasing an internet mini-tablet with Wi-Fi and no cellular radio).
Lee Epting, head of Nokia's global software development community, said that by releasing the S60 engine to the open source community Nokia can encourage much needed innovation in the browser space while keeping the browser experience consistent across hundreds of smartphones.
The S60 Webkit is available to anyone with an open source BSD license, a highly permissive license commonly used by free software developers worldwide. The kit comes with the sourcecode of the browser engine co-developed with Apple and based on that company's Safari browser. At this point it does not contain other Series 60 components such as the user interface, allowing developers to create differentiated browser interfaces, although further release of S60 elements is widely expected.
Another interesting area of speculation is how far Nokia will expand its alliance with Apple in their mutual quest to depose Microsoft. Both companies have said they could look beyond the browser for future collaborations, and this could become significant in Nokia's bid to create an ever wider range of mobile devices for advanced media consumers.
Other software areas where Apple has a good track record, and which could be included in the Nokia deal in future, include user interface design, MP3 and QuickTime video – and of course, the iTunes music download platform and iPod device. A cellular-enabled iPod with Series 60 interface and developer environment would certainly be a powerful addition to both partners' stables.
"If we can get to a point where we have one primary engine that runs all browsers, that's what we're aiming for," Epting said. As in other open source efforts, the most innovative additions to the platform coming from the developer community will be adopted by Nokia for the standard browser kit, making them universal components.
To assure itself of adoption by smartphone vendors worldwide, Nokia will almost certainly have to make further moves towards full Series 60 openness, such as offering a free license for the user interface and middleware, and porting it to non-Symbian operating systems such as Linux.
Given that nearly all Series 60 devices currently available come from Nokia itself, only whole hearted openness – with the economic benefits this would bring for licensees – is likely to overcome the natural unwillingness of handset vendors to put themselves into the hands of their greatest competitor.
Other Nokia open source projects include Maemo, URI Query Agent and Python.
The new Series 60 browser will use the same components as Apple's Safari browser for the Mac ranges and will be powered by the same open source technology, KHTML and KJS – key elements of the open source Konqueror browser, of which Safari is a commercial implementation.
Within the open source community, Nokia will bring this mobility expertise to bear on future releases of Safari.
An important aspect of the new browser will be enhanced support for customisation of applications by developers. All the major mobile software platforms are evolving to support the demand by operators that their interfaces and applications should be able to be easily customised, to aid differentiation.
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.