Open Source Symbian

Nokia Symbian

The mobile world is abuzz with the news of Nokia’s plans to open source Symbian.  There’s been a lot of great analysis of what this means for Nokia and its major competitors.  If you aren’t up to speed on what it means, I recommend Micheal Mace’s in depth business analysis, Symbian changes everything, and nothing and Simon Judge’s developer perspective,

What I’m  wondering though is how the existence of a free, high quality, open source mobile software stack will change the whole mobile ecosystem.  I’m struck by two things:

  • The barriers to entry for anyone wanting to manufacture advanced handsets have been lowered dramatically.  There are hundreds of mobile phone makers in China and elsewhere with very low costs making cheap hones for the domestic market.  Will some of them add  Symbian or Android phones to their product mix?  I think they will and that we will see direct to consumer online sales of generic smartphones before very long. Think zzzPhone or fake iPhone but toting a real OS.
  • Open sourcing Symbian offers the possibility of community development based on the Symbian core. Imagine Symbian Kernel hackers branching off the Symbian core to create custom mobile operating systems. With the full source its possible to do things like removing the restrictions on unsigned applications and adding features that Nokia’s carrier customers don’t want you to have like VOIP over 3G.  Someday will we be flashing our old S60 handsets with customized Symbian builds from a mobile hacker community?

A lot depends on just how complete Symbian’s open source offering is. I don’t think the software that manages the cellular radio or the boot loader needed to flash a new OS onto a phone are considered part of the OS. There’s a lot of licensed intellectual property tied up in cellular radio software that can’t open sourced.  The would-be phone manufacturer and the hacker will have quite a bit of work to do to fill in the missing pieces.