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 “fading” 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… 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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