Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Open source Symbian leaves Microsoft odd man out in the mobile OS game?

Michael Mace highlights one side effect of Symbian's plans to go open source that I didn't see from anyone else...
What happens to Microsoft? Here's the weird thought for the day: Microsoft is the last major company charging money for a mobile operating system. The throwback. The dinosaur. How many companies are going to want to pay for Windows Mobile when they can get Linux, Android, or Symbian for free? This is Microsoft's ultimate open source nightmare, becoming real.
This is a great observation. One of the claims Microsoft always makes against open source platforms is that there isn't a single, strong point of ownership to ensure commercial viability over the long term. The point being, who will you call when something goes wrong and what guarantee will you have that your problems will be resolved in a timely manner and for a reasonable cost?

Microsoft can't make that claim against Symbian or Android, whose futures are both in the control of single entities with deep pockets and vested interests in ensuring their respective platform's success. Although platform success for Symbian under the control of Nokia is very different than platform success for Microsoft or Google. The main difference being that Nokia can continue to make Symbian wildly successful (in terms of # of devices on market) even though their primary business interests are not aligned with delivering a free, open, consistent and ubiquitous mobile development platform.

No matter how it reads in the Symbian Foundation press release, Nokia is and will continue to be primarily interested in driving Nokia handset sales and eventually Ovi service/advertising fees. This means that while they will continue to be the primary benefactor and shepherd (and beneficiary) of one of the largest addressable markets for mobile developers to target, they still have much less incentive than Microsoft or Google to prioritize the unique needs of those developers. The "ability for developers to create cool apps" doesn't directly sell any Nokia phones.

For example, Nokia has repeatedly demonstrated over the last 5+ years that fulfilling the requirements of the latest and greatest phone takes precedence over delivering a comprehensive and consistent platform SDK. Take a look at this and this on the Forum Nokia site to get a sense for how device-centric and fragmented their platform strategy is.

One outcome of this mentality is that at any given time the effective addressable market of Symbian phones is a subset of recent Nokia phones, and maybe even just one phone. Still a large market, but not the sum total of Nokia's Symbian phones. And there's no reason to believe that they would change this modus operandi with the unified Symbian application/UI stack now being freely available to their competitors. What value will there be to Nokia of ensuring that that their latest phones based on open source Symbian are fully compatible with the latest open source Symbian phones from other vendors? How much sooner do you think Nokia will get to market with open source Symbian phones than the next vendor? Will there even be any open source Symbian phones from other vendors?

All of this leaves a lot of room for Microsoft and Google - as independent platform providers with no strong incentive to fragment their offering - to capture the investment (it's a lot more than mindshare) of application developers. Yes, Microsoft's and Google's ambitions are so large they ultimately compete with the most successful developers targeting their platforms (consider Microsoft's most recent target, Adobe). But this eventuality doesn't dis-incent them from acting in the best interests of those developers in the short to medium term.

Leaves plenty of room for Apple (and to a lesser extent RIM and Motorola) too, but they have the same conflict of interest as Nokia. Apple's primary goal is to sell handsets (iPhone), subscriptions (MobileMe) and content (iTunes music, movies, etc.). Any revenue Apple makes (grafts?) from developers will always be a tiny fraction of their earnings.

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