Why Didn't Open Sourcing Revive Symbian?

Symbian: What Went Wrong?

Jessica Thornsby

Matt Asay speculates on the reasons behind Symbian’s declining market share.

Matt Asay has posted his thoughts on why the Symbian mobile operating system is
from general use. Nokia open sourced Symbian in 2008,
when Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola and NTT Docomo announced the
creation of a new open mobile software platform from Symbian OS,
S60, UIQ and MOAP(S.) To achieve this, Nokia bought the remaining
52.1% of Symbian shares it didn’t own at the time. The Symbian
Foundation was also formed, with Nokia, AT&T, LG Electronics,
Samsung, STMicroelectronics, Texas Instruments and Vodafone. The
open mobile platform was available to all Symbian Foundation
members under a royalty-free license.

At the time, CSS Insight analyst Geoff Blaber praised the
new structure
as fitting in with “the current trend toward
open-source software platforms,” naming Google’s Android and the
LiMo Foundation as key influencers in the trend. “In my view, had
Symbian been created today it’s likely that this is the sort of
structure that would have been adopted anyway,” he said.

So, where did it all go wrong? Matt Asay states that, if a
proprietary product isn’t flourishing, then open sourcing it is not
a quick fix solution. Indeed, it “will almost certainly fare worse
as an open-source product,” due to the lack of “great code and
robust community” which usually lay behind a struggling proprietary
solution. These factors are crucial to the success of an open
source product. In the past, Matt Asay has pointed out that new entrants to a market are more
likely to flourish than incumbents. “Open source…..is a great way
to spark or accelerate momentum. It’s a terrible way to reverse a
product’s decline,” is his overview of the difference between
new/established projects, and proprietary solutions that have
little existing momentum. And, once a project that lacks
enthusiastic developers has been open sourced, the very structure
of that project throws the inactivity into a stark light: a
rarely-updated SourceForge, unanswered JIRA tickets and empty
forums can all become a project’s worst enemy.

Symbian was also hampered by a 2008 promise of releasing source
code – which they did not fulfil until 2010, long after the initial
rush of enthusiasm following the announcement. “No code, no
developers,” Matt Asay summarises.

Ultimately, for Matt Asay it all comes down to timing: the open
sourcing of Symbian was announced at the wrong time, and the code
showed up too late: “had Symbian gone open source when still strong
with developers, and had the Foundation done a better job of
engaging developers, it might have had a chance.”

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