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26 February 2009, 14:02

Opening the phone

In an interview given at the 2009 Mobile World Congress, John Forsyth talks about the future of Symbian

by Simon Bisson

How do you take a project with 40 million lines of code that's shipping on millions of devices around the world and make it open source? That's the Everest of a problem facing the Symbian Foundation as they start to deliver on the promises made when Nokia brought Symbian under its wing.

The Symbian Foundation's John Forsyth
Zoom The Symbian Foundation's John Forsyth
The sun was burning through the freshly-painted walls of a misnamed "hospitality suite" at the 2009 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona when we sat down with the Foundation's John Forsyth, the former VP of Strategy at Symbian and member of the Symbian Foundation Leadership Team. The big question was: just how do you plan to do it?

There's been a lot of work needed to get the Symbian Foundation to where it is today, as Forsyth pointed out, it's been a matter of "Getting people on board, the transition into operating mode, putting together the business plan, budget, the objectives and vision." You need something in place before you start to open source an operating system, and what Forsyth calls "the sprint to Day One" has been about getting the infrastructure in place, so that there's a repository for the code. The Symbian logo Forsyth is pleased that there's been a lot of industry buzz about the Symbian Foundation, "Some companies wanted to get involved even before the membership terms have been published." They'll only get access to the code once they've joined though, and Forsyth is keen to point out that there won't be any one company ruling the roost. Like any open source project, influence will only come from contribution.

So far it looks as though the Foundation is going to have plenty of contributors. "People are already offering to contribute," Forsyth pointed out, "even with an open source licence". He's been surprised at how easy it's been to get companies to understand the change in their business model, and has found that they're already looking at their portfolios, working out where they add value, and then making the code available to the Foundation. Forsyth is confident that everything will "work out of the box".

The Long Haul

The lesson is a simple one: value is in what goes around the code, not the code itself. You can have a significant business model around services and support. It's a big step for many businesses, and Forsyth points out that "telecoms companies have the biggest step to leap - as they have walls of intellectual property and armies of lawyers." The result will be a significant shift in the market, with 40 million lines of mature, proven, open source code available for any phone manufacturer to use.

Getting the code ready is going to be a long haul, but encumbrance isn't likely to be a big issue for the Symbian Foundation. The OS was designed to be what Forsyth calls "an architecture for collaboration", and Symbian was very careful about how it licensed intellectual property. The modular nature of the platform is helpful here, as it's easy to unplug components that can't or won't be re-licensed for use in an open source project.

Forsyth doesn't expect too many problems, "There's a lot of willing on the part of the partners to find solutions. They're not trying to eat anybody's lunch." If code is non-differentiating, then Forsyth believes the code should be open source, and he's finding that the Foundation's partners are willing to be involved in this process.

[pagelink the licence]Next: Choosing the licence[/pagelink]

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