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Mobile 2012: Symbian Opens Wide

Dan Jones
LR Mobile News Analysis
Dan Jones, Mobile Editor
6/11/2009
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The Symbian Foundation -- keeper of the world's most popular mobile operating system -- revealed exactly what "open" means for the code-base in coming years at Light Reading's first-ever virtual tradeshow, Mobile 2012, this afternoon.

The Foundation's catalyst and futurist, David Wood, spoke to an online audience to explain why mobile companies might need openness and also spoke of some of the potential pitfalls. He firmly cast the Foundation in the open camp, not only promising open software development kits and easy access to the code-base but also saying that outside developers, researchers, and other interested parties would have a say in the future roadmap for the OS.

The power of four
The backdrop for the move to openness, Wood told listeners, is the anticipation that mobile devices will quadruple in performance in many respects between now and 2012. "They'll have four times the raw processing capability," Wood says.

This means four times the storage and processing speeds that will double twice in three years, if Moore's Law holds. Battery life is the only hold-out as its performance just doesn't track with silicon, Wood noted.

More mobile raw power brings complexities, however, Wood said. Smartphones and other devices are getting harder to design, build and code software and apps for, Wood explained. Meanwhile, without more intuitive user interfaces, even power users can find phones confusing.

What's open, really?
There are two possible approaches to dealing with this level of complexity, Wood said. One is keeping all of the hardware and software development in-house, creating your own app store, and generally keeping a tight grip on the reins. This is the typical cellphone model and one largely adhered to by Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) and BlackBerry , albeit with software development kits (SDKs) for third-party apps.

Symbian, meanwhile, along with Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), the LiMo Foundation , and others, is now pushing for a more open environment. Wood says that, for Symbian, open access means that any interested party can access the SDK and operating system code base and make changes to it. This means anyone from developers to research labs and universities can get their grubby paws on the Symbian OS. Furthermore, Wood says, the Foundation will push "open governance," whereby anyone involved with the work has a say over how the operating system's roadmap will evolve.

This means of course that Symbian has to take the rough with the smooth. The key danger of such an open approach is that code-base is developed by thousands of different parties to meet their own special needs and gets fragmented, the curse word of the open-source movement.

"Fragmentation is easy; integration is hard," quipped Wood.

He notes that Symbian already has some experience of this problem and suggests that the Foundation will have to "lead by example." This means integrating good changes to the code-base quickly and well, "fast standards," Woods calls it.

Despite the potential for code-base crack-up, however, Wood suggests that the Symbian OS can only be improved by going open source. "It's a better approach, to involve the entire community... get their overall brain power involved in these challenges."

– Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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