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24 February 2011, 14:11

Nokia and open source – a trial by fire

by Richard Hillesley

Richard Hillesley has a look at Nokia's curious relationship with open source, finds out where it all went wrong and has a conversation with a survivor of its effects.

Nokia's partnership with Microsoft is remarkable for any number of reasons. Windows Phone 7 is shiny and new and has had good and bad reviews, but is still unproven. Microsoft has no great record in the market for mobile devices, and the market for such devices is characterised by short product life-cycles and shorter time-to-market.

Last year's gizmo is already obsolete and the margins are slim. Memory, battery life and processing power remain precious commodities, and mobile operating systems have to be adaptable and parsimonious with RAM.

The prospect of a durable Nokia Windows 7 smartphone that is bug free, price competitive and can hope to match or surpass Apple's iPhone or Google's Android operating system is some time away. Symbian and MeeGo have been pushed into the shadows. Nokia phone vendors and ISVs are compromised, and Nokia's share value has fallen sharply. Sales are sure to suffer, developers are disenchanted, and Intel is reeling from the blows. Microsoft and Nokia have a lot to prove in the months to come.

Just as remarkable is the memo from Stephen Elop, Nokia's chief executive officer, which was leaked days before the announcement. This talked the company down with devastating finality, setting the scene and helping to justify a very poor outcome for Nokia, which has ceased to be the world's biggest producer of mobile operating systems, and has become a mere OEM for Microsoft.

Elop's testament to the complacency and misdirection of Nokia's research and development and the inability of the company to grasp the challenge of Apple and Google, bears witness to the magnitude of Nokia's failure – but also served to predict and aggravate the enormity of the come-down.

Naked in the storm

Nokia has been failing for a long time. When the Ovi Store was launched in May 2009, one analyst speculated that "Ovi Store is where Nokia tries to re-group and muster its forces for a counter-offensive... Ovi Store is in some ways the last castle for Nokia – both N-Gage and 'Comes with Music' are industry laughing stocks." But even the Ovi launch misfired and was beset with problems.

Open sourcing Symbian might have been the answer, but open sourcing wasn't enough. Symbian is long in the tooth, and Nokia was running out of time. The development of Maemo and MeeGo could have been pursued more aggressively, but failed miserably. The rapidity with which similar Linux-based systems such as Android and WebOS have been brought to market by competing vendors tells its own story.

Maemo, which was begun as far back as 2005, was a relative success, but was targeted at a virtuous but limited 'geek' market. Between its launch on the first internet tablet, the N770, and its last appearance on the N900, the Maemo community had resolved most of the issues it had been asked to address. Within its own terms, Maemo was an unqualified success, but that wasn't enough. A small and focused team, given the job of refining the APIs and user interface, might have brought a competitive smartphone to market, but the Maemo community was instead asked to switch from Gtk to Qt, and then to merge Maemo with Moblin to form MeeGo, and then, on the eve of launch late last year was asked to re-write again, this time using QML instead of custom Qt based widgets – and the impetus was lost.

Nokia sells more phones than any other company in the world and is still dominant in the markets for both dumb and 'smart' phones. But sales of existing Nokia handsets are likely to fall away as users wait to see if Windows Phone 7 is up to the job.

Nokia is exposed and naked in the storm and has several open source technologies in its care. Nokia's agreement with Microsoft and the subsequent downgrading of MeeGo will have knock-on effects for the Linux ecosystem. Many smaller companies have been funded by Nokia to work on MeeGo, and withdrawal of funding could be damaging in other areas.

But it would be wrong to think that free software developers haven't been aware nor troubled by the issues.

Next: The taming of Smeegol

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