Instant (Bad) Karma


Want to know how to send your karma quotient into the cellar? Turns out it is startlingly easy to blow your foot off.

Case in point: the Symbian Foundation, established by Nokia as an independent entity to manage the open source Symbian mobile OS code base. Back in June 2008, Nokia bought Symbian, Ltd. and the OS, and simultaneously, they, along with several other OEMs and carriers, started the Symbian Foundation, announcing a project to open source the whole platform under the Eclipse Public License. Fast-forward to October 26, 2009, when the foundation announced the microkernel source code’s release as open source:

The kernel release is nine months ahead of schedule and reflects the positive momentum behind Symbian’s ambitious platform migration plan, which began with the release of security code under EPL.

16 out of a total 134 platform packages have now been released into open source since the code was first made available on the Symbian Foundation servers in April 2009.

Wow. 16 months after announcing they’re going to open source the platform, they’re up to almost 12% of the modules and ahead of schedule! Sure, it is hard to open source previously closed source code. Sifting through all that code, figuring out who owns the copyright, and cutting licensing deals for these encumbered bits of source or writing clean-room replacements is a thankless and difficult task. But have the stewards of Symbian noticed that they’re in a white-hot competitive market for pride of pocket in smartphones vs. the likes of Apple, Google, RIM, Palm, Microsoft, and a host of other competitors? The Symbian OS has the market-leading position today thanks to Nokia’s market share outside of North America – 48% worldwide. But Android and iPhone are growing by leaps and bounds, largely at the expense of Symbian and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile. Actually, this fact is not lost on Symbian’s backers. Sony Ericsson is launching the Xperia X10 Android-based multimedia smartphone in early 2010. Samsung, according to Korean investment house HTC Investment Securities, is going to ditch Symbian completely, focusing on Android and their own Bada platform, announced today. Even Nokia is hedging their bets, with their new, hotly anticipated N900 tablet running the Maemo mobile Linux platform, and not Symbian OS.

Not pretty. What to do? Savage your competition – another open source project (and a very popular one at that!) … well, perhaps thats not the best strategy but it is what Lee Williams, Symbian’s executive director chose to do on October 23, in this interview with Om Malik of GigaOM. You know you’re in rough water when your interviewer interjects “you know you are on camera?” to throw you a life ring.

The funny thing is – Williams is right. Google is so hands-off with how Android is being deployed, that the parochial interests of handset vendors are trumping the need for consistency, creating fragmentation that could derail Android’s platform adoption momentum just as it is gathering speed. But for Williams to poke at Android’s multiple UI skins when Symbian has S60, UIQ, and MOAP interfaces requiring developers to port across these interfaces and also across carrier and handset differences is a case of throwing stones in a glass house. A few lessons:

  1. Don’t diss other open source communities. Developers are looking for signs of cooperation and community, not corporate style competitive trash talk. Even if you’re right, you don’t win respect with such tactics, you just look desperate.
  2. Don’t blast others for issues on which you are as bad, or worse. You just look silly, and developers lose respect for you, because they know you’re trying to pull the wool over their eyes.
  3. Don’t announce a grand gesture aimed at securing developer interest, and then drag your feet, or even worse, renege on your promise. Developers don’t care about your excuses. They know things are hard – so what? As Yoda said, “Do, or do not. There is no ‘try’.”

Is Symbian a lost cause? Not at all! They have the largest market share of any smartphone platform, and outside of North America the OS is a strong player. Here are some headlines that the Symbian Foundation could deliver that would create good karma:

“Symbian revamps tooling, SDK, simplifies development model, based on community input and contributions.”

“Symbian Foundation funds accelerated open source project to build automated Android to Java ME porting framework, adopts Android API as alternative programming model.”

“Low-cost embedded device manufacturers standardize on Symbian on a chip design; create ultra-high volume ‘brain’ to add intelligence and style to everyday products.”

“Symbian Foundation eliminates ‘Symbian Signed’ program, creates industry leading free application QA process with guaranteed 7-day approvals, transparency.”

“Symbian Foundation completes open sourcing of the Symbian platform through unprecedented community contributions of unencumbered APIs; surprising shift to cooperation praised by enthusiastic developer community.

All of these possible headlines have one thing in common: achieving them would require real commitment, investment, and hard work. It isn’t just what you do, its how you do it that generates good karma. Including developers in decision making, valuing their contributions, and leveraging their goodwill are vital. Solving real-world problems facing developers and helping them innovate and succeed are essential. If you do not do these things, your competition will.

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7 Responses to Instant (Bad) Karma

  1. anon November 11, 2009 at 7:48 am #

    “Symbian has S60, UIQ, and MOAP”

    Sorry buddy, UIQ doesn’t exist anymore. You’re right about MOAP but think about it a little bit, MOAP is a Japanese UI. Do you not think a developer in Europe or the US is going to have bigger problems than API calls if they decide that they want their app to run on MOAP phones as well? The same would apply for any OS.

    Anyway, Android is not open-source. It is largely controlled by Google and hardware vendors.

  2. Rich November 11, 2009 at 8:10 am #

    @anon You’re right – my bad. UIQ is no more – assets donated to Symbian Foundation – missed that while doing my research, thanks for the correction! And yes there will be problems making an app run in both Europe and Japan. But why not build a platform that makes it easier? Don’t developers want to have as broad a reach as possible? Aren’t there devices that succeed across these markets? As for Android not being open source – your point about who controls it has merit but, couldn’t you say the same thing about Symbian? The mobile ecosystem hasn’t embraced open source the way the enterprise software world has. That said, a working Android device can be built from their code base, by anyone with the resources and know-how. Synbian’s code base is not available in the same way and won’t be until (projected) mid-2010. My point in the post is more about the wisdom of not poking at other projects, especially when one’s own project is at least as guilty. Thanks for the comment!

  3. anon November 11, 2009 at 9:12 am #

    “As for Android not being open source – your point about who controls it has merit but, couldn’t you say the same thing about Symbian?”

    It really couldn’t because Symbian has an open governance model. Nokia have no great control beyond the fact that they are contributing the vast majority of the code at the moment. It is a Not-for-Profit organisation governed by a board of members who each have 1 vote. I appreciate that Nokia seems to have a large influence but this is not because of anything inherent in the Symbian Foundation. Look for information on ‘governance’ on both and ‘ (an ‘open-source’ project with a .com domain????)

    “Android device can be built from their code base, by anyone with the resources and know-how. Synbian’s code base is not available in the same way and won’t be until (projected) mid-2010.”

    This is a verrrry tenuous point. The cost to be a member is $1500. This is not going to deter someone with a wish to create a device. It may deter hobby coders at the moment, but as you said it will be fully open soon and I think it should be acknowledged that with 10 years of history as a closed platform this is a significant and highly laudible effort to move to open-source from Symbian.

  4. anon November 13, 2009 at 7:49 am #

    By the way, the Symbian Foundation would love to hear from you if you have any ideas about how to achieve some of the things you mentioned in the article. Unlike Google and certainly Apple, Symbian are *really* interested in hearing from anyone. Especially those with criticism. If you look around the sites then you may see that some of those ideas have actually been put forward already. Particularly take a look at:

  5. Eric November 18, 2009 at 9:22 am #

    Intresting Article.
    Rich, what is your position QT being introduced to Symbian?

  6. Rich November 18, 2009 at 2:10 pm #

    @Eric, Qt on Symbian is a significant step forward, I think – it goes part way toward delivering on my first “headline” suggestion to revamp the development model. Nokia is taking a community-friendly approach toward Qt since they acquired Trolltech – encouraging contributions and participation with community investment and smart choices like no copyright assignment in their contribution agreement. Their decision to forego commercial licensing in favor of an LGPL license option is another sign that they “get it” when it comes to driving Qt adoption. With Nokia’s substantial influence in, perhaps the approach they’re taking with Qt may help shape’s evolving community as the code is open sourced and the foundation invites more participation. It is still necessary to dive into Symbian C++ to access platform-idiosyncratic features, but Qt does make the model a lot less “last century”!


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