Nokia Gets Symbian in Fighting Shape

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on June 24, 2008

Mention Symbian on this side of the ocean and you’re likely to get little more than a blank stare. Although it is the world’s most popular smartphone operating system by far and dominates the market in Europe and Japan, Symbian has won little traction in North America.

Now Nokia, which has owned a controlling stake in London-based Symbian Ltd. for several years, seems ready to shape the development operation up to deal with the challenges posed by Google’s Android platform, mobile Linux from the LiMo Foundation, Apple’s iPhone, a forthcoming version of Windows Mobile, and maybe even a reconstituted Palm OS.

Nokia announced today that it was buying the shares of Nokia that its doesn't already own. But instead of absorbing the software operation, it is turning its intellectual property over to the newly formed Symbian Foundation. Handset makers Motorola, Sony Ericsson, Samsung, and LG Electronics, carriers Vodafone, NTT DoCoMo, and AT&T, a chipmakers Texas Instruments and STMicroelectronics are also contributing assets to the foundation.

One model for the Symbian Foundation might be the success of the Mozilla Foundation, which began with AOL's donation of Netscape's code. This, of course, developed into the open source Firefox browser. But it's not yet clear just how much of the now-proprietary Symbian code will become open.

If a smartphone is defined as a handset with an open operating system that allows users to install the applications of their choice, Symbian has somewhere between 50% and 60% of the world market, depending on who is doing the counting. Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, and Palm are distant runners up.

One problem that will challenge the foundation is the fragmentation of the Symbian development world. The operating system exists in three flavors and program written for one generally won't run on the others without considerable modification. The dominant version is Nokia's S60, used on the company's Series 60, E, and N phones. Then there is UIQ, used primarily by Sony Ericsson and Motorola. And MOAP, used by NTT DoCoMo in Japan.

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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