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11 November 2008

Symbian Partner Event, San Francisco, 4th Dec

Filed under: Events, partners, Symbian Foundation — David Wood @ 1:59 pm

Historically, admission to Symbian Partner Events has been restricted to signed-up members of Symbian’s Partner Network. However, for our event at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco on Thursday 4th December, we’re going to open up participation.

Some parts of the day will still be restricted to signed partners. However, most of the proceedings on the day will be open to a wider group of attendees – such as mobile developers, journalists, the open source community, and representatives of companies that may be considering partnering with Symbian.

Space will be limited so anyone thinking of attending should register their interest as soon as possible via the event website.

Full details of speakers, panellists, and other sessions at the event will be published on the event website shortly. In the meantime, here are a few highlights:

  • Keynote presentations from a leading member of the open source community, senior representatives from network operators and phone manufacturers, Symbian executives, and the management of the Symbian Foundation;
  • “Fast Forward” technology seminars
  • An open roundtable discussion on “Succeeding in the US: the key factors”
  • “Symbian Foundation Platform Architecture Overview”
  • “Symbian Foundation Q&A”.

There will also be an exhibition of partner products and solutions, as well as ample opportunity to network with movers-and-shakers of the global mobile industry.

Footnote: Here’s the LinkedIn entry for this event.

27 September 2008

Beyond smartphones

Filed under: MIDs, Psion, Symbian Foundation — David Wood @ 9:39 am

Smartphones constitute a huge market place. Bear in mind, not just the enormous number of smartphones sold each year, but also the fact that manufacturers earn considerably larger profits, for each smartphone sold, than they do for ordinary phones. Plausibly, although smartphones account for only around 10-15% by units of the 1B+ total annual market of all mobile phones, they provide upwards of 20-25% of the sales revenues for all mobile phones – and perhaps more than 40% of the profits. What’s more, users of smartphones typically run up significantly larger monthly usage bills than users of other kinds of mobile phones.

For this reason, the 1996 strategic decision by Psion Software to focus future development of the EPOC32 software system on smartphones turns out to have been marvellously prescient. I’m proud to have been part of that strategic review. The easy decision at the time would have been to continue to focus on the category of devices where EPOC software had historically flourished (in both its 16-bit and 32-bit variants) – in smart handheld organisers, known as “palmtops” or “PDAs”. But the decision was taken to target a market that did not exist at the time, and which was expected in due course to dwarf the PDA market. This sowed the seeds for the corporate transformation, 18 months later, of Psion Software into Symbian.

As is often the case with market transformations, the new device category took longer to materialise than had been anticipated. But eventually smartphone sales exceeded all our expectations. It’s as computing pioneer Joseph Licklider, stated back in 1965:

“People tend to overestimate what can be done in one year and to underestimate what can be done in five or ten years.”

However, the concept of palmtop computing devices has not gone away. It keeps re-emerging, with new names, such as subnotebooks, UMPCs (Ultra Mobile Personal Computers), and MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices), or in new variants such as PNDs (Personal Navigation Devices) or Kindle-like mobile e-book readers. On the LinkedIn forums discussing the forthcoming 2008 Symbian Smartphone Show, Malik Kamal Saadi of Informa raises the following question:

What OSs will be addressing Mobile-Internet-Devices and UMPCs?

Operators and vendors are now looking to extend their opportunities beyond the traditional mobile handsets market by adding new device categories to their portfolios: MIDs and UMPCs. Silicon suppliers such as Qualcomm, Intel, and TI see these devices as the next big convergent device segment. However it is not clear yet which OS type will be more suitable for this type of devices: ARM based (e.g. Symbian, mobile Linux such Android, maemo, etc)? or X86 based (e.g. light version of Microsoft Windows, or Apple MAC)?

Symbian is more suitable for mobile phones but I was wondering if , with Symbian Foundation, this OS could be upgraded to address the MID and UMPC market?

For simplicity, for now, I’ll use the term “MID” to cover all of these emerging categories of smart handheld devices which major on functionality other than phone communications (in other words, they aren’t smartphones). As I see it, the question of MIDs breaks down into three:

  1. After many previous false starts, are there reasons for us to take MIDs seriously as a device category in the foreseeable future?
  2. Even if the market for MIDs grows in absolute terms, will it be significant enough to warrant distracting resources onto that market, away from other growth areas that might be even more significant?
  3. What operating system is the likely winner in the MID space?

1. The history of false starts with MIDs

The ill-fated Palm Foleo (which was cancelled before it came to market) and Sony mylo are but two of many examples of devices in this same general space:

  • Announced with a lot of fanfare
  • Pitched as finding an exciting new “sweet spot” in between laptop computers and smartphones
  • But failing to live up to the vision – achieving at best lack-lustre market success.

As another example, it’s no secret that Nokia’s maemo-powered Internet Tablet devices, although providing a great learning experience for working with open source, make only a limited contribution to Nokia’s overall revenues.

However, I see the delays with market success of MIDs as being temporary – akin, in fact, to the delays before the eventual market success of smartphones:

  • The declining cost of key items of hardware, which has led to smartphones becoming ever more affordable, will likewise move many types of MIDs inside the budget range of larger and larger pools of potential purchasers;
  • Some specific technical and ergonomic problems needed to be solved, before the appeal of a device can extend beyond the early technology enthusiasts; these include better screens (for mobile e-book readers), improved GPS fix technology, and better mobile internet browsing;
  • Just as smartphones grow in numbers as a result of increased word-of-mouth recommendations by users of these devices, various MIDs will benefit from similar crescendos of user endorsement;
  • An industry that is dedicated to the creation and marketing of these devices takes some time to come into being and establish itself (in the analysis of Bhaskar Chakravorti, this takes roughly twice as long to happen, as you might expect from just looking at Moore’s Law technology curves) ; but virtuous cycle effects do eventually emerge.

I have one other reason for believing in the commercial future of MIDs – particulary those which are PDAs. I’ve personally derived great utility from the Psion Series 5mx that I’ve been using virtually every waking hour for the last nine years. The device supplements my memory, keeps track of my appointments, gathers my thoughts and ideas, marshalls my to-do items, and much, much more. There’s no doubt in my mind that there are many other people who would, similarly, benefit from the highly useful PIM (personal information management) capabilities of such devices:

  • A proportion of users will be satisfied by the PIM capabilities of a single multi-purpose smartphone device. These users will just carry one smart mobile device.
  • But a significant proportion of users will prefer to carry a separate PDA-like device, in addition to a smartphone. They’ll value the additional benefits from a device with a larger screen and larger keyboard.

2. Other directions beyond smartphones

MIDs are one potential direction of market expansion beyond existing smartphones. But they’re not the only one. Indeed, there are two other directions which have consistently held higher importance in Symbian’s thinking:

  • The drive towards mass-market smartphones – in which smartphone technology is used inside ordinary-looking phones used by larger and larger numbers of consumers;
  • The drive towards super-smartphones – in which additional computing powers, new peripherals and sensors, and other hardware and software enhancements combine to provide new experiences and services for sophisticated and demanding users at the always-fluid yet lucrative top end of the market.

It would have been a major strategic error for Symbian to lose focus on either of these two growth areas. What merit an additional 10-20 million units of sales of PDA-like devices, if this diversion of attention caused us to miss the chance of the next 200-500 million units of smartphones?

On the other hand, these markets (MIDs and smartphones) are not separate. They’ve had elements in common in the past, and they’re becoming increasingly connected. An important meaning of the word “convergence” that is (rightly) oft-applied to the smart mobile device industry, is that the technology and solutions applicable to one type of smart mobile device will increasingly be applicable to all other types of smart mobile device. There’s less need for highly optimised distinct solutions: Moore’s Law and faster network speeds mean there’s less need to worry over every jot and tittle of hardware and network capacity. Even though various devices look quite different from each other and are operated differently by users, the underlying hardware and software can be similar.

In other words, it can be argued that the days when hardware and software had to be uniquely tailored to each different mobile device category are receding. If that’s true, then benefits of scale, in developing the same technology solution for different kinds of smart mobile devices (both smartphones and MIDs), may outweigh the advantages of having the best solution for each different device. And if that is true, we can expect the same mobile operating system to take the lead in all these different areas. So Symbian can no longer stand aside from the general MID category.

Happily, the creation of the Symbian Foundation come at exactly the right time, changing industry dynamics to make it much more likely that Symbian platform software will be adopted, not just in standard smartphones, mass-market smartphones, and super-smartphones, but also in various kinds of MID. What Symbian itself could not do, the newly enlarged and newly empowered Symbian ecosystem will take in its stride.

3. Picking the winning operating system for MIDs

In selecting the software system for their devices (MIDs, smartphones, or otherwise), manufacturers generally have four kinds of criteria in mind:

  • Technology factors: which software delivers superior performance, battery life, security, low defect count, improved user experience, etc?
  • Commercial factors: which software results in low total cost of development, manufacture, deployment, and maintenance; and which provides good opportunities for value-adding differentiation?
  • Political factors: which software is least likely to have its evolution controlled by corporations or organisations that fail to share common goals with the manufacturer?
  • Reliability factors: which software is likely to be delivered on schedule and to pre-agreed quality levels, in fulfilment of a multi-year evolutionary roadmap of changes?

An operating system will need to score well on all four counts, before it is adopted for any large (“bet the farm”) projects in commercially mature companies.

The planned creation of the independent Symbian Foundation, with royalty-free licensing of the Symbian platform software, increases the attractiveness of this software to manufacturers considering MIDs:

  • The commercial and contractual barriers of entry will be lowered
  • If a manufacturer finds a need to change some part of the software system, to address a specific niche device need, that will be much easier than before, given the open access to the source code
  • The improved openness will attract a larger ecosystem than before, which will in turn be able to assist with the development and customisation of MID-specific distributions of Symbian platform software.

These changes allow the various technical merits and reliability merits of Symbian software to shine through more clearly, freed from any cloud of uncertainty over commercial or political questions:

  • These technical merits include long battery life, platform security, networking bearer mobility, real-time services, and support for multiple different models of application development;
  • The reliability merits include an admirable track record of shipping software on time.

Both these sorts of merits count for a great deal, even in a world where the hardware and network capabilities have increased substantially from just several years ago. That applies for MIDs as well as for smartphones. Indeed, these increases in hardware and network capacity bring more stress and strain onto the software, and make it all the more important that the software is fully fit for purpose. For all these reasons, I believe that Symbian can be the winning operating system for MIDs, as well as for smartphones.

14 August 2008

Who says that "design by committee" must always be bad?

Filed under: collaboration, Symbian Foundation — David Wood @ 3:47 am

Writing in EE Times yesterday, comparing the prospects of different mobile operating systems, Rick Merritt has a bit of illicit fun complaining about what he sees as inevitable slowness in the operation of the forthcoming Symbian Foundation:

Trailing behind

…it will take developers as long as two years to meld all the pieces of the unified open-source platform Nokia plans.

The environment will combine the best elements of the UIQ and MOAP(S) environments created by Sony Ericsson and Docomo, respectively. But it will not run existing apps written for those environments.

Worse, the unified Symbian will be defined by a complex set of interworking groups at the Symbian Foundation—including separate councils on feature road mapping, user interface and architecture—drawn from the dozen companies that make up the new foundation. What’s the Finnish term for “design by committee”?

This description of the intended collaborative design and review mechanism of the Symbian Foundation implies that such a process is bound to be ineffective. The underlying idea is that committees (or “councils”, to use the word from the Symbian Foundation whitepaper) are for losers, and never produce anything good.

It’s true that many committees struggle. They can degenerate into talking shops. But not all committees have such a fate.

Indeed, what’s proposed for the Symbian Foundation isn’t something brand new. It’s an evolution of a collaborative design and review mechanism that is already in place, and which has been working well for many years, guiding the evolution of Symbian OS up till now.

For example, Symbian TechCom (“Technology Committee”) has met three or four times each year since 1998, and successfully performs many of the tasks slated for the new councils. Symbian TechCom membership includes leading technical specialists and senior product managers from phone manufacturers around the world. What makes TechCom work so well is:

  • A series of processes that have evolved over the ten years of TechCom’s existence
  • Continuity of high-calibre personnel attending the meetings, who have learned how to work together effectively
  • Skilled management by the Symbian personnel responsible for the operation of this body
  • Excellent preparation before each meeting – and good follow up afterwards.

The skills of running an effective committee may sound boring, but believe me, if done right, they enable better decisions and a new level of combined buy-in to the conclusions eventually reached.

As another example, from further back in my professional career, I remember countless long discussions over aspects of the Psion EPOC suite of software. How should the Agenda app operate in such-and-such a circumstance, exactly what APIs should the OPL scripting language provide, which software features should be centralised to libraries and which left in individual apps…? These questions (and many many others) were decided by a process of debate and eventual consensus. It can be truly said that this software system was “designed by committee”. Some people might think that’s a criticism. On the contrary, it’s a great strength.

In short, collaboration is hard, but when you’ve got the means to make it work, the outcome will be better (for complex problems) than if strong individuals work independently.

Let me briefly comment on the other two paragraphs from the above extract:

The [Symbian Foundation] environment will combine the best elements of the UIQ and MOAP(S) environments created by Sony Ericsson and Docomo, respectively. But it will not run existing apps written for those environments.

However, it will run existing apps written for the S60 environment – which is the majority implementation of Symbian OS.

it will take developers as long as two years to meld all the pieces of the unified open-source platform Nokia plans.

But there’s no need to wait for two years before working with this software. That software will represent a smooth evolution of existing Symbian OS. Symbian OS will continue to be updated regularly, with new releases continuing to appear roughly two or three times each year. Any effort applied by developers to create solutions for these existing and forthcoming releases will be well worth it:

  • These solutions will run on the smartphone platform that has by far the largest marketshare
  • These solutions will also run on devices running the version of Symbian OS released in due course by the Symbian Foundation.

In conclusion, I don’t agree with any implication that the Symbian Foundation is going to result in slower software development. On the contrary, the outcome will be deeper collaboration and swifter innovation.

13 August 2008

There’s more to Open Innovation than Open Source

Here’s the challenge: How best to capitalise on the potential innovation that could in theory be created by users and developers who are based outside of the companies that are centrally responsible for a product platform?

This is the question of how best to make Open Innovation work. Recall the following contrasts between Open Innovation and so-called Closed Innovation – taken from the pioneering book by Henry Chesbrough, “Open innovation: the new imperative for creating and profiting from technology”:

The “closed innovation” mindset:

  1. The smart people in our field work for us
  2. To profit from R&D we must discover it, develop it, and ship it ourselves
  3. If we discover it ourselves, we will get to the market first
  4. The company that gets an innovation to market first will win
  5. If we create the most and the best ideas in the industry, we will win
  6. We should control our IP, so that our competitors don’t profit from our ideas.

The “open innovation” mindset:

  1. Not all the smart people work for us. We need to work with smart people inside and outside our company
  2. External R&D can create significant value; internal R&D is needed to claim some portion of that value
  3. We don’t have to originate the research to profit from it
  4. Building a better business model is better than getting to market first
  5. If we make the best use of internal and external ideas, we will win
  6. We should profit from others’ use of our IP, and we should buy others’ IP whenever it advances our own business model.

In the modern world of hyper-complex products, easy communication via the Internet and other network systems, and the “Web 2.0” pro-collaboration zeitgeist, it is easy to understand why the idea of Open Innovation receives a lot of support. The challenge, as I said, is how to put these ideas into practice.

It’s tempting to answer that the principal key to successful Open Innovation is Open Source. After all, Open Source removes both financial and contractual barriers that would otherwise prevent many users and external developers from experimenting with the system. (What’s more, “Open Innovation” and “Open Source” share the prefix “Open”!)

However, in my view, there’s a lot more to successful Open Innovation than putting the underlying software platform into Open Source.

To see this, it’s useful to review some ideas from the handy summary presentation by leading Open Innovation researcher Joel West, “Managing Open Innovation through online communities”. Joel makes it clear that there are three keys to making Open Innovation work best for a firm (or platform):

  1. Maximising returns to internal innovation
  2. Incorporating external innovation in the [platform]
  3. Motivating a supply of external innovations.

Let’s dig more deeply into the second and third of these keys.

Incorporating external innovation in the platform

The challenge here isn’t just to stimulate external innovation. It is to be able to incorporate this innovation into the platform. That requires the platform itself to be both sufficiently flexible and sufficiently stable. Otherwise the innovation will fragment the platform, or degrade its ongoing evolution.

It also requires the existence of significant skills in platform integration. Innovations offered by users or external developers may well need to be re-engineered if they are to be incorporated in the platform in ways that meet the needs of the user community as a whole, rather than just the needs of the particular users who came up with the innovation in question.

  • This can be summarised by saying that a platform needs skills and readiness for software management, if it is to be able to productively incorporate external innovation.

Motivating a supply of external innovations

The challenge here isn’t just to respond to external innovations when they arise. It is to give users and external developers sufficient motivation to work on their ideas for product improvement. These parties need to be encouraged to apply both inspiration and perspiration.

  • Just as the answer to the previous issue is software management, the answer to this issue is ecosystem management.

But neither software management nor ecosystem management comes easy. Neither fall out of the sky, ready for action, just by virtue of a platform being Open Source. Nor can these skills be acquired overnight, by spending lots of money, or hiring lots of intrinsically smart people.

Ecosystem management involves a mix of education and evangelism. It also requires active listening, and a willingness by the platform providers to occasionally tweak the underlying platform, in order to facilitate important innovations under consideration by external parties. Finally it requires ensuring that third parties can receive suitable rewards for their breakthroughs – whether moral, social, or financial.

Conclusion: On account of a legacy of more than ten years of trial and error in building and enhancing both a mobile platform and an associated dynamic ecosystem, the Symbian Foundation will come into existence with huge amounts of battle-hardened expertise in both software management and ecosystem management. On that basis, I expect the additional benefits of Open Source will catalyse a dramatic surge of additional Open Innovation around the Symbian Platform. In contrast, other mobile platforms that lack this depth of experience are likely to find that Open Source brings them grief as much as it brings them potential new innovations.

12 August 2008

Audacious goals

Filed under: BHAG, Psion, Symbian Foundation, vision — David Wood @ 8:02 pm

Martin Sauter asks: Which BHAGs are held by companies in the wireless space?

BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is a memorable term introduced by Jim Collins and Jerry Poras in their watershed book, “Built to last: successful habits of visionary companies”. This book was widely read (and debated) within Psion in the mid 1990s. I vividly remember Psion Chairman and CEO David Potter giving an internal talk on themes from that book relevant to Psion. That talk had a lasting effect.

As Martin mentions, Symbian has been driven for many years by the audacious idea that, one day, Symbian OS will be the most widely used software platform on the planet. But that’s only one of several BHAGs in my mind.

Personally I prefer to say that Symbian’s goal is to be the most widely used and most widely liked software platform on the planet. That’s because I see the latter element as being a key contributor towards the former element. My vision is that people of all dispositions and from all social groups the world over will have good reason to want to use devices running this software – and will be able to afford them.

Here’s another BHAG. Looking towards the activities of the Symbian Foundation (assuming that the regulatory authorities approve the deal that creates this foundation), I envision a time when the ten or so principal package owners for the Symbian Platform will be among the most widely admired and respected software engineers on the planet. Books and articles will frequently write about each of these principal package owners and their finely honed skills in software architecture, software quality, software usability, and large-scale software integration. These articles will celebrate the different backgrounds and different sponsor-companies of these principal package owners (and will no doubt also delve into the multi-faceted inter-personal relationships among this group of world-striding individuals). These individuals will be the pin-up superstars who inspire new generations of emerging world-class software engineers.

I have other large-scale aspirations concerning the future of the Symbian Foundation, but it’s not appropriate to talk about these for the moment. However, what I am happy to share is some audacious ideas for the evolution of the products that I expect to be created, based on Symbian OS, in the 15-25 years ahead:

  • The human-computer interaction will sooner or later evolve to become a far more efficient brain-computer interaction. Instead of device owners needing to type in requests and then view the results on a physical screen, it will be possible for them to think requests and then (in effect) intuit the results via inner mental vision. (Just as we all had to learn to type, we’ll have to learn to think anew, to use these improved interfaces, if you see what I mean.) So the rich information world of the internet and beyond will become available for direct mental introspection;
  • The smartphone devices of the future will be more than information stores and communications pathways; they will have powerful intelligence of their own. Take the ideas of a spell-checker and grammar-checker and magnify them to consider an idea-checker and an internal coach. So the smartphone will become, for those who wish it, like a trusted best friend;
  • Adding these two ideas together, I foresee a time when human IQ and EQ are both radically boosted by the support of powerful mobile always-connected electronic brains and their nano-connections into our biological brains. To be clear, such devices ought to make us wiser as well as smarter, and kinder as well as stronger. For a glimpse of what this might mean, I suggest you take the time to find out what happens to one of the key characters in Kevin Bohacz’s awkwardly titled but engrossing and audacious (I think that’s the right word in this context) novel “Immortality”.

There’s more. In addition to far-reaching ideas about the products that the operation of the Symbian Foundation will eventually enable, it’s also worth considering some far-reaching ideas about the problem-solving capabilities of the robust yet transparent open collaborative methods expected to be deployed by the Symbian Foundation (methods that build on best practice established in the first ten years of Symbian’s history). In other words, the potential benefits of richly skilled open collaboration go far beyond the question of how to create world-beating smartphones. As highlighted in the tour-de-force “The upside of down” by the deeply thoughtful Canadian researcher Thomas Homer Dixon, the profound structural issues facing the future of our society (including climate change, energy shortage, weapons proliferation, market instability, fundamentalist abdication of rationality, and changing population demographics) are so inter-twined and so pervasive that they will require a new level of worldwide collaboration to solve them. Towards the end of his book, Homer-Dixon points to the transformative potential of open-source software mechanisms for inspiration for how this new level of collaboration can be achieved. It’s an intriguing analysis. Can open source save the world? Watch this space.

Footnote: Having the right BHAG is an important first step towards a company making a dent in the universe. But it’s only one of many steps. Although “Built to last” is a fine book, I actually prefer Jim Collin’s later work, “From good to great: why some companies make the leap … and others don’t”. In effect, “From good to great” is full of acutely insightful ideas on how companies can make progress towards their BHAGs.

7 July 2008

Symbian signed and openness

Filed under: malware, openness, Symbian Foundation, Symbian Signed — David Wood @ 8:13 pm

The team at Telco2.0 have run some good conferences, and there’s much to applaud in their Manifesto. Recently, the Telco2.0 blog has run a couple of hit-and-miss pieces of analysis on the Symbian Foundation. There’s a lot of speculation in their pieces, and alas, their imagination has run a bit wild. The second of these pieces, in particular, is more “miss” than “hit”. Entitled “Symbian goes open – or does it?”, the piece goes most clearly off the rails when it starts speculating about Symbian Signed:

…the Symbian signing process doesn’t just apply to changes to Symbian itself — it applies to all applications developed for use on Symbian, at least ones that want to use a list of capabilities that can be summed up as “everything interesting or useful”. I can’t even sign code for my own personal use if it requires, say, SMS functionality. And this also affects work in other governance regimes. So if I write a Python program, which knows no such thing as code-signing and is entirely free, I can’t run it on an S60 device without submitting to Symbian’s scrutiny and gatekeeping. And you though Microsoft was an evil operating system monopolist…

This makes the Symbian signing process sound awful. But wait a minute. Isn’t there a popular book, “Mobile Python – rapid prototyping of applications on the mobile platform“, written by Jurgen Scheible and Ville Tuulos, that highlights on the contrary just how simple it is to get going with sophisticated Python applications on S60 devices? Yep. And what do we find as early as page 45 of the book? A two-line program that sends an SMS message:

import messaging
messaging.sms_send(“+14874323981″, u”Greetings from PyS60”)

I tried it. It took less than an hour to download and install the SIS files for the latest version of PyS60 from Sourceforge, and then to type in and run this program. (Of course, you change the phone number before testing the app.) Nowhere in the process is there any submitting of the newly written program “to Symbian’s scrutiny and gatekeeping”. The fanciful claims of the Telco2.0 piece are refuted in just two lines of Python.

So what’s really going on here? How is it that normally intelligent analysts and developers often commit schoolboy howlers when they start writing about Symbian Signed? (Unfortunately, the Telco2.0 writers are by no means unique in getting the Symbian Signed facts wrong.) And why, when people encounter glitches or frustrations in the implementation of Symbian Signed, are they often too ready to criticise the whole system, rather than being willing to ask what small thing they might do differently, to get things working again?

I suspect three broader factors are at work:

1. An over-casual approach to the threat of mobile malware

Symbian Signed is part of an overall system that significantly reduces the threat of mobile viruses and the like. Some developers or analysts sometimes give the impression that they think they stand immune from malware – that it’s only a problem that impacts lesser mortals, and that the whole anti-malware industry is a “cure that’s worse than the disease”. Occasionally I sympathise with this view, when I’m waiting for my desktop PC to become responsive, with its CPU cycles seemingly being consumed by excessive scanning and checking for malware. But then I remember the horrors that ensue if the defences are breached – and I remember that the disease is actually worse than the cure.

If we in the mobile industry take our eye off the security ball and allow malware to take root in mobile phones in ways similar to the sad circumstances of desktop PCs, it could produce a meltdown scenario in which end users decide in droves that the extra intelligence of smart mobile phones brings much more trouble than it’s worth. And smartphones would remain of only niche interest. For these reasons, at least the basic principles of Symbian Signed surely deserve support.

2. A distrust of the motivation of network operators or phone manufacturers

The second factor at work is a distrust of control points in the allocation of approvals for applications to have specific capabilities. People reason something like this:

  • OK, maybe some kind of testing or approvals process does makes sense
  • But I don’t trust Entity-X to do the approving – they have mixed motivations.

Entity-X could be a network operator, that may fear losing (for example) their own SMS revenues if alternative IM applications were widely installed on their phones. Or Entity-X could be a device manufacturer, like Apple, that might decide to withhold approval from third party iPhone applications that provide download music stores to compete with iTunes.

Yes, there’s a potential risk here. But there are two possible approaches to this risk:

  1. Decide that there’s no possible solution, and therefore the power of a system like Symbian Signed should be criticised and diminished
  2. Work to support more of the decision making happening in a fully transparent and independent way, outside of the influence of mixed motivations.

The second approach is what’s happening with the Symbian Foundation. The intent with the Symbian Foundation is to push into the public sphere, not only more and more of the source code of the Symbian Platform, but also as much of the decision-making as possible – including the rules and processes for approval for Symbian Signing.

Incidentally, the likely real-world alternative to a single, unified scheme for reviewing and signing applications is that there will be lots of separately run, conflicting, fragmented signing schemes. That would be a BAD outcome.

3. A belief that openness trumps security

This brings us to the final factor. I suspect that people reason as follows:

  • OK, I see the arguments for security, and (perhaps) for quality assurance of applications
  • But Symbian Signed puts an obstacle in the way of openness, and that’s a worse outcome
  • Openness is the paramount virtue, and needs to win.

As a great fan of openness, I find myself tempted by this argument from time to time. But it’s a misleading argument. Instead, freedom depends on a certain stability in the environment (including a police force and environmental inspectors). Likewise, openness depends on a basic stability and reliability in the network, in the underlying software, and in the way the ecosystem operates. Take away these environmental stability factors, and you’ll lose the ability to meaningfully create innovative new software.

The intention behind Symbian Signed to help maintain the confidence of the industry in the potential of smartphones – confidence that smartphones will deliver increasing benefits without requiring debilitating amounts of support or maintenance.

It’s true that the rules of Symbian Signed can take a bit of learning. But hey, lots of other vital pieces of social or technical infrastructure likewise take time to appreciate. In my mind, the effort is well worth it: I see Symbian Signed as part of the bedrock of meaningful openness, instead of some kind of obstacle.

29 June 2008

The five laws of fragmentation

Filed under: fragmentation, leadership, Open Source, Symbian Foundation — David Wood @ 9:42 am

As discussion of the potential for the Symbian Foundation gradually heats up, the topic of potential fragmentation of codelines keeps being raised. To try to advance that discussion, I offer five laws of fragmentation:

1. Fragmentation can have very bad consequences

Fragmentation means there’s more than one active version of a software system, and that add-on or plug-in software which works fine on one of these versions fails to work well on other versions. The bad consequences are the extra delays this causes to development projects.

Symbian saw this with the divergence between our v7.0 and v7.0s releases. (The little ‘s’ was sometimes said to stand for “special”, sometimes for “strategic”, and sometimes for “Series 60”.) UIQ phones at the time were based on our v7.0 release. However, the earliest Series 60 devices (such as the Nokia 7650 “Calypso”) had involved considerable custom modifications to the lower levels of the previous Symbian OS release, v6.1, and these turned out to be incompatible with our v7.0. As a pragmatic measure, v7.0s was created, that had all of the new technology features introduced for v7.0, but which kept application-level compatibility with v6.1.

On the one hand, v7.0s was a stunning success: it powered the Nokia 6600 “Calimero” which was by far the largest selling Symbian OS phone to that time. On the other hand, the incompatibilities between v7.0 and v7.0s caused no end of difficulties to developers of add-on or plug-in software for the phones based on these two versions:

  • The incompatibilities weren’t just at the level of UI – UIQ vs. Series 60
  • There were also incompatibilities at many lower levels of the software plumbing – including substantial differences in implementation of the “TSY” system for telephony plug-ins
  • There were even differences in the development tools that had to be used.

As a result, integration projects for new phones based on each of these releases ran into many delays and difficulties.

Symbian OS v8 was therefore designed as the “unification release”, seeking as much compatibility as possible with both of the previous branches of codeline. It made things considerably better – but some incompatibilities still remained.

As another example, I could write about the distress caused to the Symbian partner ecosystem by the big change in APIs moving from v8 to v9 (changes due mainly to the new PlatSec system for platform security). More than one very senior manager inside our customer companies subsequently urged us in very blunt language, “Don’t f****** break compatibility like that ever again!”

Looking outside the Symbian world, I note the following similar (but more polite) observation in the recent Wall Street Journal article, “Google’s Mobile-Handset Plans Are Slowed“:

Others developers cite hassles of creating programs while Android is still being completed [that is, while it is undergoing change]. One is Louis Gump, vice president of mobile for Weather Channel Interactive, which has built an Android-based mobile weather application. Overall, he says, he has been impressed by the Google software, which has enabled his company to build features such as the ability to look up the weather in a particular neighborhood.

But he says Weather Channel has had to “rewrite a few things” so far, and Google’s most recent revision of Android “is going to require some significant work,” he says.

2. Open Source makes fragmentation easier

If rule 1 was obvious (even though some open source over-enthusiasts seem to be a bit blind to it), rule 2 should be even clearer. Access to the source code for a system (along with the ability to rebuild the system) makes it easier for people to change that software system, in order to smooth their own development purposes. If the platform doesn’t meet a particular requirement of a product that is being built from that platform, hey, you can roll up your sleeves and change the platform. So the trunk platform stays on v2.0 (say) while your branch effectively defines a new version v2.0s (say). That’s one of the beauties of open source. But it can also be the prelude to fragmentation and all the pain which will ensue.

The interesting question about open source is to figure out the circumstances in which fragmentation (also known as “forking”) occurs, and when it doesn’t.

3. Fragmentation can’t be avoided simply by picking the right contract

Various license contracts for open source software specify circumstances in which changes made by users of an open source platform need to be supplied back into the platform. Different contracts specify different conditions, and this can provoke lengthy discussions. However, for the moment, I want to sidestep these discussions and point out that contractual obligations, by themselves, cannot cure all fragmentation tendencies:

  • Even when users of a platform are obligated to return their changes to the platform, and do so, it’s no guarantee that the platform maintainers will adopt these changes
  • The platform maintainers may dislike the changes made by a particular user, and reject them
  • Although a set of changes may make good sense for one set of users, they may involve compromises or optimisations that would be unacceptable to other users of the platform
  • Reasons for divergence might include use of different hardware, running on different networks, the need to support specific add-on software, and so on.

4. The best guarantee against platform fragmentation is powerful platform leadership

Platform fragmentation has some similarities with broader examples of fragmentation. What makes some groups of people pull together for productive collaboration, whereas in other groups, people diverge following their own individual agendas? All societies need both cooperation and competition, but when does the balance tilt too far towards competition?

A portion of the answer is the culture of the society – as reflected in part in its legal framework. But another big portion of the answer is in the quality of the leadership shown in a society. Do people in the group believe that the leaders of the group can be relied on, to keep on “doing the right thing”? Or are the leaders seen as potentially misguided or incompetent?

Turning back to software, users of a platform will be likely to stick with the platform (rather than forking it in any significant way) if they have confidence that the people maintaining the trunk of the platform are:

  1. well-motivated, for the sake of the ecosystem as a whole
  2. competent at quickly and regularly making valuable new high quality releases that (again) meet the needs of the ecosystem as a whole.

Both the “character” (point 1) and the “competence” (point 2) are important here. As Stephen Covey (both father and son) have repeatedly emphasised, you can’t get good trust without having both good character and good competence.

5. The less mature the platform the more likely it will be to fragment, especially if there’s a diverse customer base

If a platform is undergoing significant change, users can reason that it’s unlikely to coalese any time soon into a viable new release, and they’ll be more inclined to carry on working with their own side version of the platform, rather than waiting for what could be a long time for the evolving trunk of the platform to meet their own particular needs.

This tendency is increased if there are diverse customers, who each have their own differing expectations and demands for the still-immature software platform.

In contrast, if the core of the platform is rock-solid, and changes are being carefully controlled to well-defined areas within the platform, customers will be more likely to want to align their changes with the platform, rather than working independently. Customers will reason that:

  • The platform is likely to issue a series of valuable updates, over the months and years ahead
  • If I diverge from the platform, it will probably be hard, later on, to merge the new platform release material into my own fork
  • That is, if I diverge from the platform, I may gain short-term benefit, but then I’ll likely miss out on all the good innovation that subsequent platform releases will contain
  • So I’d better work closely with the developers of the trunk of the platform, rather than allowing my team to diverge from it.

Footnote: Personally I see the Symbian Foundation codeline to be considerably more mature (tried and tested in numerous successful smartphones) than the codeline in any roughly similar mobile phone oriented Linux-based foundation. That’s why I expect that the Symbian Foundation codeline will fall under less fragmentation pressure. I also believe that Symbian’s well-established software development processes (such as careful roadmap management, compatibility management, system architecture review, modular design, overnight builds, peer reviews, and systematic and extensive regression testing) are set to transfer smoothly into this new and exciting world, maintaining our track record of predictable high-quality releases – further lessening the risks of fragmentation.

24 June 2008

Symbian 2-0

Filed under: Nokia, Open Source, Symbian Foundation — David Wood @ 6:13 am

Months of planning culminated this morning with the announcement of an intended dramatic evolution for Symbian – an evolution that should decisively advance the Symbian platform toward its long-anticipated status of being the most widely used software platform on the planet.

The announcement of the Symbian Foundation comes on the very first day of the second decade of Symbian’s existence. It also sets the scene for a much wider participation by companies and individuals in the development and deployment of novel services and applications for all sorts of new and improved Symbian-powered mobile devices. Because this second decade of Symbian’s history should witness radically greater collaboration than before, the designation “Symbian 2.0” seems doubly apt.

Subject to the deal receiving regulatory approval, I envision a whole series of far-reaching changes to take place in the months and years ahead:

  • It will become possible for the best practices of Open Source Software to be applied in and around the software platform that is the most suited to smartphones
  • Closer working relations between personnel from Symbian and S60 teams will result in more efficient development, accelerating the rate at which the overall platform improves
  • The lower barriers to usage of the Symbian platform should mean that the number of customers and partners will rocket
  • The unification of the formerly separate UI systems will further increase the attractiveness of the new platform
  • The platform will be royalty free – which will be another factor to boost usage
  • Because of increased adoption of the platform, the ecosystem will also grow, through the OS-ES volume-value virtuous cycle mechanism
  • For all these reasons, smartphone innovation should jump forward in pace, to the potential benefit of all participants in the ever expanding, ever richer, converged mobile industry
    Customers and partners alike – both newcomers and old-timers – will be on the lookout for fresh options for differentiation and support
  • In short, there will be lots of new opportunities for people with knowledge of the Symbian platform.

Great credit is due to Symbian’s shareholders, and especially to Nokia, for enabling and driving this bold and powerful initiative.

Of course, with such a large change, there’s considerable uncertainty about how everything will work out. Many people will be unsure exactly where they, personally, will end up in this new world. Lots of details remain to be decided. But the basic direction is clear: participants in the Symbian 2.0 ecosystem will be part of a much bigger game than before. It’s going to be exciting – and no doubt somewhat scary too. As Symbian’s first CEO, Colly Myers, used to say, “Let’s rock and roll!”

Postscript: For a clear rationale of some key aspects of the Symbian Foundation plan, take a look at what my Symbian colleague John Forsyth has to say, here.

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