22 September 2008

Open source coexistence with marvellous non-free add-ons

Filed under: business model, Open Source, partners — David Wood @ 5:25 pm

“Has Symbian thought open source through?” That’s the question David Meyer of ZDNet asks this morning. David explains the context of his question:

Last week I visited Symbian’s labs here in London. The assembled hacks were shown some very interesting stuff, such as what could be done with a quad core mobile chipset… There was also some cool stuff with mobile-based audio EQ, which always pleases me.

We also got shown some of the fruits of Symbian’s work with Scalado on the graphics front. The engineer demonstrated very quick loading of and zooming into a 21-megapixel picture, which was very impressive but raised … unanswered questions: … what precisely is to happen with this valuable work once Symbian goes open source?

Given that [going open source] will involve stripping out all the third-party, proprietary stuff that can’t go open source, why is Symbian still bothering with such partnerships?

Here’s my answer. First, I’m sure that there are aspects of going open source which we in Symbian have yet to think through properly. Moving some 400,000 files of source code into open source is bound to pose a whole host of unexpected problems. However, this particular question is one that has received considerable thought.

The highly impressive Scalado mobile imaging software which Symbian licensed earlier this year is only one of a large number of add-on or plug-in solutions which are available, either as part of Symbian OS itself, or as a pre-integrated supplementary solution. For obvious reasons, I won’t say anything more about Scalado, but I’ll address the general question of an add-on solution A from vendor V, which may be included in a phone created by customer C of Symbian. Suppose that A is currently subject to a license fee F, which is payable:

  • Either from C direct to V,
  • Or from Symbian to V, with the costs in this case currently being covered as part of the Symbian OS licence fee paid by C to Symbian.

So what happens to this licence fee F once the Symbian platform becomes open source, and there’s no longer any licence fee for Symbian platform?

It turns out there are quite a few options available.

For example, the Symbian platform may exclude A, but may instead include a more basic version A0. This will be good enough for many purposes – and will allow customers to build many kinds of successful phones. But customers who want particularly responsive or feature-rich behaviour in the area covered by A will be able to pay fee F directly to V, and will apply A in place of A0 in their phones. So long as the code for A is independent of the Symbian platform code for A0 (in legal terms, so long as A is not a derivative work of A0), there’s no obligation on V to licence their code using the EPL applicable to the Symbian platform itself. That is, they won’t need to make their source code available.

Is this somehow at variance with the motivation of Symbian in creating an open source platform? It depends what you think the primary motivation is for this move. If you think that motivation is to drive out all cost from phones, you may be surprised by this option. However, once you realise that the main drivers are actually to lower barriers of entry and experimentation, to boost innovation, to deepen collaboration, to raise quality, and to accelerate time-to-market, you won’t be so surprised. Open source does not imply low-value! And nor does open source imply that anything which builds on top of it, needs to be zero cost.

Another option is that vendor V will make A available royalty-free as part of the open source platform, but will earn revenues:

  • From consultancy work in the area of A
  • Or, from making available a chargeable new version A1 that provides even better performance and/or new features.

In short, there will be plenty of ways for creative partner companies to continue to earn handsome income from their add-on and plug-in solutions to Symbian platform software.

I’ll close by returning to the last part of the initial question: “…why is Symbian still bothering with such partnerships?” It’s because these partnerships collectively generate a huge quantity of impressive add-on and plug-in solutions, which allow our customers to customise and optimise their phones in numerous ways. And that’s good for everyone.

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