Google on the horizon

19. Google on the horizon

Ten days after my “acerbic street fighter” presentation at the October 2007 CTIA Smartphone Summit, I gave a revised permutation of that slide-set in the Grand Hyatt Erawan hotel in Bangkok, Thailand. The occasion was Nokia’s “S60 Review” event – an event which took place twice a year, being held at a different international location each time.

My presentation was billed as “Symbian and the perfect storm of convergence”. Compared to my presentation in San Francisco, I added extra material about particular new features in the forthcoming new version of Symbian OS, v9.5:

  • A “FreeWay” re-write of our networking communications architecture, to support the higher bandwidth of 4G networks, as well as coping with switching seamlessly between different kinds of wireless network (cellular and wi-fi)
  • A “ScreenPlay” re-write of our graphics composition engine, to enable applications to benefit automatically from any hardware accelerated support for graphics animations and overlays
  • Preparation for a multi-core version of the operating system, in readiness for forthcoming dual-core and quad-core chipsets that would increase the performance of devices without crippling batter life.

In other words, I claimed that Symbian was ready for whatever new phase the mobile industry was about to enter. Symbian, in my view, was ready for a new beginning.

Then I repeated my observations about the limitations of open source methods, and the greater importance of the methods of enterprise agility, lean processes, and customer intimacy. During the Q&A period, I provided more details of why I thought Linux unsuited for the future of smartphones. The audience seemed relieved and reassured by my answers.

There had been a lot of laughter as I spoke. The mood would have been less positive had audience members realised more clearly the extent of the adaptations that were required within S60 before the Symbian OS enhancements in our latest release could benefit actual smartphone projects.

When I left the room afterwards, an American sitting near the front came up to me, smiling warmly, and shaking my hand. “Let’s grab a drink”, he said, introducing himself as David Rivas. I recognised the name. He was one of a suite of American senior managers that Nokia had been hiring. Having held a CTO role within Sun from 2003 to 2006, he had taken a brave career step to become CTO of the Silicon Valley mobile Linux start-up A La Mobile. A La Mobile had claimed to provide, with its “Convergent Linux Platform” (“CLP”), exactly the kind of platform that I had said in my presentation would not come to pass. They described CLP as follows,

A La Mobile solves the challenges facing Linux in Mobile Handsets by providing a fully integrated and complete Linux based software stack, integrated with a la Mobile’s innovative technologies designed to bring the handset to market quickly by enabling the entire binary software stack to move directly across handset models. This integrated solution decreases software fragmentation and enables increased testing and quality assurance support. With the Convergent Linux Platform, A La Mobile provides a complete range of support and services necessary to take a manufacturer from initial design concept through testing and validation to product shipment.

To meet the demands of handset manufacturers, service providers and the expectations of consumers, A La Mobile has integrated the very best technology in the marketplace to satisfy the requirements for a complete handset platform…

On leaving A La Mobile, David had taken a role as VP of Strategy and Business Development inside the S60 organisation. I was curious to find out what David thought of my assessment of the prospects for Mobile Linux. He told me that I was entirely right to highlight the importance of a central integrator with massive power, that could avoid the issues of platform fragmentation, and single-mindedly pursue the required mobile enhancements in Linux. “Perhaps Google could do this”, he suggested, referring to reports that Google was about to launch a major operating system initiative in the space.

I did not know it at the time, but David was one of a small group of senior managers in Nokia who would soon be well down the road to deciding to transform Symbian into an open source platform. This would be a different kind of “new beginning” for Symbian – effectively a “Symbian 2.0”. It would be several months before the Symbian executive team found out about these plans.

A different kind of competition

One of the drivers for Nokia’s decision to turn Symbian into an open source platform was a grudging recognition that Google’s increasing presence in the smartphone space was likely to substantially transform the competitive landscape. That recognition took a long time to form.

At first, Symbian regarded Google as an application developer – not as the owner of a rival smartphone operating system. Inasmuch as there was a rivalry, it was as an employer of talented software engineers – especially after Google starting hiring mobile application developers to its recently opened offices in Victoria, London. Their offices were only a short tube journey from Symbian’s offices near Waterloo, London.

[ SNIP ]

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