Too much openness

23. Too much openness

If open is good, is more open better?

The Symbian Foundation claimed that the Symbian platform was more open than its leading open source competitor, Android. The design of the Symbian Foundation was intended to ensure, in addition to open source, something called “open governance”:

  • Plans for the roadmap, for future releases, for enhancements to the UI, and indeed for evolution of the governance of the Foundation, would all be open to members of the Symbian community to observe and to influence
  • Decisions would be taken by a group of “Councils”, each having representatives from member companies that could demonstrate active interest, expertise, and commitment in the relevant council domain
  • Suggestions for future developments would be aired publicly, on blogposts and on special “ideagoras” community websites for ideas, rather than being decided behind closed doors.

Part of the rationale of this design was to prevent domination of the Foundation by one company – Nokia. Nokia would be prevented from managing the ongoing development of the Symbian platform entirely in its own interest. Yes, Nokia would be recognised as the dominant contributor of the initial assets to the Foundation, but it would not be able to block the legitimate evolving interests of other users of the platform. These other users would (in the same pattern as was seen in the Eclipse community) increasingly bring contributions of their own to the platform.

Another part of the rationale was this idea: The more easily people in the wider community can see and understand the thinking behind proposed changes in the platform, the more intelligently they can participate in debates about the pros and cons of these changes. This would lead, it was hoped, to greater engagement and greater contributions.

The designers of the Symbian Foundation wanted to avoid ending up with a single handset manufacturer simply dictating, in the manner of Google for Android, what would be included in new releases, and (even worse) not announcing these changes in advance. Any company in that situation would be able to have its own products ready, utilising the new features, well in advance of any competitor. Other users of the platform would be at a stark disadvantage.

These restrictions on Nokia’s power over the Symbian Foundation made evident sense for the likes of Sony Ericsson, Samsung, and Motorola. But why would Nokia itself agree to such restrictions?

There were two reasons:

  1. These restrictions were a necessary precondition for the other shareholders of Symbian Ltd to agree to sell these shares to Nokia. Historically, these shares had allowed these other shareholders to exert tangible influence over the evolution of the Symbian platform. The other shareholders would only give up that mechanism of influence if another one – open governance – was established in its place.
  2. At least some senior managers in Nokia sincerely believed in the principle that, the bigger and more engaged a community that is established, the better the results for everyone in that community. By giving up an element of control, Nokia would end up with a better platform.

Open plans

In line with the above principles, Symbian Foundation executives regularly publicised details of future plans that were, at the time, still uncertain. For example, on the 13th of March 2009, I posted an article on the Symbian Foundation blog entitled “Introducing the Release plan”. That article received a great deal of attention. Within twenty four hours, it held the top-spot on the TechMeme news aggregator site,

My article was covered in, for example, a Computer World article by Nancy Gohring,

Symbian sets aggressive release plan

Symbian announced that it plans to release a new version of the software every six months.

Nancy Gohring (IDG News Service) – 17 March, 2009

The Symbian Foundation plans to release a new version of the operating system every six months, with the first expected to appear in phones at the end of this year.

Last week the foundation, formed after Nokia bought out the remainder of Symbian last year and vowed to make the software open source, revealed its release plan for the software. The schedule is so aggressive that going forward, the group will typically be working on five versions at the same time.

The first release, with the difficult-to-pronounce-name Symbian^2, will be complete by the end of the year and will be based on S60 5.1, the user interface developed by Nokia. That means that phones using the operating system could go on sale this year, depending on choices that manufacturers make, said David Wood, executive vice president of research for Symbian, in a blog post.

The next release, Symbian^3, should appear in phones by the middle of 2010, he said.

Features that will appear in Symbian^2 are set and most of the features for Symbian^3 are agreed on, but some changes could still happen. The content of Symbian^4 “is much more open for debate,” Wood said.

When asked in the comments after the blog post how users should pronounce the new name, Wood said: “The simplest way to pronounce ‘Symbian^2’ is ‘Symbian two’. But I’m sure people will also say things like ‘Symbian to the power of two’ and ‘Symbian mark two’ and ‘Symbian spring two’.”

If the foundation can stick to the time schedule, it will be releasing new software much more frequently than competitors. By comparison, Microsoft unveiled Windows Mobile 6 in February 2007 and just this year announced a partial update to version 6.5. Apple has been a bit more frequent in its iPhone software updates. It introduced iPhone 2.0 software in July 2008, a year after unveiling the initial version of the phone, and the company is expected to announce the third version of the software on Tuesday.

The frequent-release schedule could allow Symbian to stay on the cutting edge of mobile developments. That could help it regain some of the momentum that it has lost in the past year or so. Researchers at Gartner recently said that Symbian’s market share plummeted by 21.6% in the fourth quarter of 2008 compared to the fourth quarter of 2007. In the fourth quarter last year, Symbian had 47.1% market share. Research In Motion came in second place with 19.5%, according to Gartner, so Symbian still has a solid lead despite the loss.

“This is not a surprising turn of events – Symbian was bound to lose the dominance it acquired when it was virtually the only smartphone OS apart from Windows Mobile, as the market matured and new challengers arose,” wrote Caroline Gabriel, an analyst at Rethink Research, in a note about Symbian’s announced OS release schedule.

The aggressive plan shows that Symbian is aware of the competitive landscape. “So Symbian is fighting back, with a clear eye on the midyear launches of a host of Android phones, the Palm Pre, and new iPhone and BlackBerry models,” Gabriel wrote.

Another response made me chuckle. It was by Finnish developer and blogger Jouni Miettunen,

Symbian Foundation with Open Plans

David Wood of Symbian Foundation has made an impressive demonstration of what “being open” means: he shows Symbian Foundation platform release plan, with comments!

I’m speechless. Literally. I’ve signed so many NDAs that even thinking about such is not allowed! To show them on public means getting fired, getting in jail, bankrupting your company, millions of euros fee, getting banned from industry for life. A moment of silence to catch my breath…

For the first time I’m a believer. I have always had faith in Symbian OS, but now I’m beginning to believe it might really be “open”. The possibilities are… limitless!

Thank You!

Going public with our plans in this way did give us some positive market coverage. But not everyone in Nokia was happy with this kind of public disclosure. Nokia’s interest in radical openness was waning fast. They had more pressing matters on their minds.

Anticipating Qt

One of the questions most frequently asked in the wider community, about the evolution of the Symbian platform, concerned pending improvements to the UI system. S60’s hallmark hierarchical grid of icons, accessed by cursor keys, was increasingly awkward for users to navigate as more and more functionality was included in smartphones. What’s more, the system used by application developers to create these UIs – known by its historic name of “Avkon” – had long outgrown its initial scale. Developers were naturally keen to learn about initiatives to address these matters:

  • How would a new mode of touch interaction, known as “Direct UI”, be incorporated, with its principle of “single click to action”?
  • How would modern, hardware-accelerated graphics (including semi-transparencies) be supported? When could S60 developers take full use of the improved “Screenplay” graphics architecture present in Symbian OS itself since v9.5?
  • How would Qt software from Nokia’s January 2008 acquisition of Trolltech be included? And how would that sit alongside the older, Avkon interfaces?

[ SNIP ]

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