Open, closed, then "open," but not really

A look at Symbian's on-again, off-again history with open source.

Symbian logoIt looks like Symbian’s on-again/off-again open source saga is finally coming to a closed ending.

In February 2010, Nokia announced with great fanfare the open sourcing of the Symbian OS. At the time it was the most widely used smartphone OS around the world. A foundation was established that included support from heavyweights like AT&T, LG, Motorola, NTT Docomo, Samsung and Sony Ericsson.

Not even a year later, Nokia reclaimed control of the system and put the future of the open source project in doubt. Concerns
were validated two weeks later when Nokia announced it would be pulling the source code offline and effectively ending the open source Symbian project.

Nokia recently surprised observers by putting the source code back online and boldly announcing its reappearance in a blog post titled “We are Open!”. Nokia stated intentions to deliver “continuous evolution of the platform to partners and customers — including consumers.” Acknowledging the diminishing role of Symbian in light of the new Microsoft deal, Nokia also said they still needed “the collaboration with our platform development partners” and that they “continue to value an open way of working.”

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But when Groklaw and others looked at the fine print, it was clear this version of Symbian could not in fact be considered open source. These revelations forced Nokia to clarify their version of “open” in a blog post titled “Not Open Source, Just Open for Business“:

… Nokia is making the Symbian platform available under an alternative, open and direct model, to enable us to continue working with the remaining Japanese OEMs and the relatively small community of platform development collaborators we are already working with … we are releasing source code to these collaborators, but are not maintaining Symbian as an open source development project.

While it’s understandable that Nokia is looking to minimize resources dedicated to Symbian, it’s a shame they can’t keep the open source project alive. Symbian would likely still die a slow and natural death, but at least the option for future developments, enhancements, or bug fixes would exist for those still interested in the Symbian platform.

Update 4/12/11: Nokia held a Symbian event today. Sascha Segan at PCMag sums it up:

There is absolutely nothing about today’s announcements that would change anyone’s existing opinion of Nokia and Symbian products. If you love them, Nokia isn’t totally abandoning them. If they weren’t compelling before, they won’t be compelling now. Nokia is just trying to keep its entire existing user base from bleeding away while the company switches to Windows Phone, and that’s a real tightrope walk.

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