Mobile Platforms Loosen Grip

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Nokia's move to buy out the other shareholders in Symbian may signal another large shift in the cellular industry as it moves slowly and angrily from closed networks with restricted devices and walled gardens, to something that starts to resemble the free-wheeling Internet.

Nokia's deal is obstensibly about control. The Symbian platform, which runs on about 60 percent of the smartphones sold worldwide each quarter, has been developed by Symbian, the company, but Nokia's 48-percent ownership left them less than satisfied. At the same time, Nokia and some Symbian owners had developed and deployed competing platforms. The Symbian deal folds three others mobile systems--UIQ, MOAB, and Nokia's S60--into Symbian over the next couple of years.

But with control, they're also giving up control, probably spurred by Google and its dozens of partners in the Open Handset Alliance, which is developing the royalty-free, somewhat open-source Android platform. Nokia said that Symbian will be converted into a non-profit, stop charging license fees, and gradually release its code under open-source licenses, too. (Android's goal is to be largely or entirely open source, but has started out with releasing code and licenses for application-layer components.)

Why does a platform that opens up its source code matter? Because with access to code often comes greater flexibility. Several carriers are pledged to be part of either Nokia's future Symbian Foundation, or are already part of the Open Handset Alliance. Cellular operators typically hate openness, because it reduces the profit they can make by selling exclusive devices under restrictive contracts with heavy early termination fees, and from add-on services (like video streaming) and downloads (like ring tones and music).

The carriers see the writing on the wall. Wi-Fi was once seen as a potential disruptive factor to carrier networks because it would allow a degree of "hey, we have a barn, let's put on a show" network building, with many fewer restrictions on network usage and purpose, partly due to lower costs. That hasn't panned out for city-wide networks (cost, coverage, and subscribers all being issues), although in-home Wi-Fi used with T-Mobile HotSpot@Home service has apparently been a good move for that company.

So the carriers are trying to move towards a form of openness that still lets them make money off the ecosystem, and forestall regulation (in the U.S., at least) that would require much more openness. Verizon did place a winning bid for $5 billion in a recent spectrum auction that covered licenses that Google and others had successfully lobbied the FCC to require openness: any device, any software, any network service, not just the winning bidder.

Phones running the Android OS may be available by the end of 2008; and phones incorporating some of the Symbian changes will appear in 2009, with a fully integrated update due by 2010. It's only when these phones appear on the market that we can determine how "open" open really is.

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