Every time I think about Nokia and Symbian, I can’t help picturing a man knee-deep in molasses, running as fast as he can. He’s working up a sweat, thrashing and stumbling forward, and proudly points out that for someone knee-deep in molasses he’s making really good time…
The posting is entitled “Nokia: Running in molasses“. It arose from Mike reflecting on some of what he heard at the recent Symbian Partner Event (SPE) in San Francisco. The posting is well worth reading. I appreciate the issues that Mike raises. These issues are significant. But as you might expect, I have a somewhat different perspective on some of them.
Large software doesn’t mean that software development has to go slow
Charles Davies, Symbian CTO, pointed out to us that Symbian OS has about 450,000 source files. That’s right, half a million files. They’re organized into 85 “packages”…
There are economies of scale as well as dis-economies of scale. The point of the careful division of the Symbian Platform software into packages is to enable each of the resulting packages to have greater autonomy – and, therefore, to progress more quickly.
There’s one subtle point here. Many of the packages include teams from both Symbian and from S60. This applies to cases where the separation of functionality between the two formerly distinct companies resulted in sub-optimal development. Now that Nokia’s acquisition of Symbian has completed, these boundaries can be intelligently re-designed.
Disruption, size, and organisational design
This brings me to a comment on the ideas of Clayton Christensen. Here’s another extract from Mike Mace’s article:
If the folks at Nokia really think they are well positioned to crush Apple, they need to go re-read The Innovator’s Dilemma. Being big is not a benefit in a rapidly-changing market with emerging segments.
Agreed, being big is no guarantee of being able to respond well to changing market conditions. That’s why I’m personally a big fan of Agile. Agile can help established companies (whether large or small) to launch and embrace disruptions. As Scott Anthony, one of Christensen’s co-authors, has recently commented in his article “Can Established Companies Disrupt?“:
The data suggests that it is increasingly common for an established company to launch disruptive innovations. More and more incumbents are learning how to embrace disruptive principles such as:
- Put the customer, and their important, unsatisfied job-to-be-done at the center of the innovation equation
- Embrace the power of simplicity, convenience, and affordability
- Create organizational space for disruptive growth businesses
- Consider innovation levers beyond features and functions
- Become world class at testing, iterating and adjusting
As I said, being big can have its advantages as well as its disadvantages, so long as individual parts of the company have sufficient autonomy. The hard part is knowing when to seek closer ties, and when to seek looser ties. One of Christensen’s later books had some very interesting advice on that score. I can’t remember for sure whether that book was “The Innovator’s Solution” or “Seeing What’s Next“. The advice was that where performance remains a critical differentiator, you should look for a tight coupling. Where performance is already “good enough”, you should seek a loose coupling – with open APIs and a choice of alternative solutions.
As soon as I read these words, some time around 2003-2004, I had a gut reaction that, one day, the relevant teams in Symbian software engineering and S60 software engineering ought to be combined. It took a long time for that insight to be fulfilled. But now that it’s happening, there’s plenty of good reason to expect the resulting combined company to start accelerating its development.
Development in parallel with change
Back to Mike Mace, commenting on the SPE presentation by Charles Davies:
Davies talked about the substantial challenges involved in open sourcing a code base that large. He said it will take up to another two years before all of the code is released under the Eclipse license. In the meantime, a majority of the code on launch day of the foundation will be in a more restrictive license that requires registration and a payment of $1,500 for access. There’s also a small amount of third party copyrighted code within Symbian, and the foundation is trying to either get the rights to that code, or figure a way to make it available in binary format.
Those are all typical problems when a project is moving to open source, and the upshot of them is that Symbian won’t be able to get the full benefits of its move to open source until quite a while after the foundation is launched. What slows the process down is the amount of code that Symbian and Nokia have to move. I believe that Symbian OS is probably the largest software project ever taken from closed to open source. If you’ve ever dealt with moving code to open source, you’ll know how staggeringly complex the legal reviews are. What Nokia and Symbian are doing is heroic, scary, and incredibly tedious. It’s like, well, running in molasses.
I have four comments on this:
- Even though the full transition to open source may take up to two years from the initial announcement of the foundation (that is, until mid 2010), there are plenty of other things happening in the meantime – with a series of interim releases that progressively convert more of the software from the community-source Symbian Foundation Licence to the open-source Ecliplse Public Licence;
- There will be new technologies and new UI features in these interim releases;
- The interim releases should already achieve at least some of the considerable benefits of both open source and community source; the first packages which will become available under the EPL are being chosen so that independent developers can do useful things with some of them (including contributing back working code enhancements);
- The legal reviews may initially seem daunting, but with the help of modern code-scanning tools and with the advantage of “practice makes perfect”, the process is likely to speed up considerably along the way.
Cool stuff in the lab
Mike ends the main part of his article as follows:
Nokia still has a lot of time to get it right. But do they really understand what needs to change? I can’t tell, because all I usually get from them is monologues on how big their business is and how much cool stuff they have in the lab.
I accept that analysts must inevitably hedge their bets, regarding the extent of future success of the main mobile operating systems, until a period of proving over the next 12-24 months has shown what these operating systems can actually accomplish. I eagerly look forward to the day when more of the Symbian and Nokia roadmap of stunning new technology, new services, and new user experience attains greater visibility. When that happens, analysts are likely to come down off the hedge.
My own expectation is that the moves to integrate Symbian and Nokia, and to create the Symbian Foundation, will see a substantial speed up of innovation over that time period. But I’m not taking this for granted. After all, I’m well aware of the original subtitle of “The Innovator’s Dilemma”: “When new technologies cause great firms to fail“.