Nokia transitions Symbian source to non-open license

Nokia logoNokia is transitioning Symbian away from the open source software model and will distribute it under more restrictive terms going forward. The source code is still available for download, but it's only available to approved persons and it's under a new license that pretty obviously doesn't match the open source criteria.

Groklaw used a blog post to give Nokia a much-deserved beating for characterizing the code availability as "open," prompting the handset maker to issue an official clarification. Nokia says that Symbian is no longer open source, just "open for business." The definition of "open" in the mobile space is apparently completely different than it is everywhere else in the software industry. Nokia says that the new model will simplify matters for the few remaining Japanese OEMs that are still using the platform. This is likely a reference to Fujitsu, which still uses Symbian on feature phones.

Under new management, Nokia no longer intends to maintain Symbian as an open source project. The status of the Symbian platform in Nokia's product lineup is a bit cloudy. The company has made it clear that it's long term plan is to gradually transition away from Symbian as it moves forward with its plan to use Windows Phone 7. Nokia is still developing new Symbian-based products, however, and has a Symbian-related media briefing planned for next week.

A few years ago, Nokia spent ?264 million to acquire the parts of Symbian that it didn't already own so that it could open the whole thing under a permissive open source software license. The move was intended to make Symbian more attractive to other hardware vendors, increase engagement around the platform, and accelerate porting efforts to new hardware environments.

The Symbian Foundation, which was formed to serve as a vendor-neutral venue for advancing the platform, completed the relicensing process last year and made virtually the entire platform available under the Eclipse Public License (EPL). The transition was completed ahead of schedule, but still came too late to attract meaningful interest from prospective stakeholders. Most of the Symbian hardware vendors moved on to Android and other platforms.

The Symbian Foundation's trash-talking executive director stepped down following some high-profile partner losses. A month later, the Symbian Foundation basically shut down all of its development efforts and shed most of its staff. The foundation exists today in name only, as a legal entity that manages certain intellectual property. Nokia took over Symbian development and currently maintains the code internally.

It's possible that Nokia has given up on using the open EPL license because moving the development in-house has made the boundary between the company's own proprietary bits and the underlying platform rather blurry. It's extremely unfortunate that this model will effectively prevent Nokia's Symbian code base from going off into the sunset as an open project that can be repurposed by the remaining Symbian enthusiasts.

It's also disappointing that Nokia doesn't seem to care anymore. After spending hundreds of millions of euros and many years of effort to be able to distribute the code under the EPL, it seems absurd to throw it all away and revert to a license that imposes bizarre restrictions on source code access.

European open source analyst Carlo Daffara has a good postmortem analysis on his blog, where he discusses why Symbian failed to gain traction as an open source software project. He believes that the Nokia's decision to move away from the EPL to an effectively non-open licensing model was motivated by a desire to get away from the downstream patent grant included in the EPL.

Nokia is still maintaining Qt and what little is left of its MeeGo development efforts under their respective open licenses. It seems, however, that Nokia's affinity for openness is dissipating under the new management.

Although there is probably not a whole lot of interest in the Symbian source code at this point, Daffara has published the entire EPL-licensed code base in a public mercurial repository where it can be freely accessed and used under open source terms. Nokia's current and ongoing Symbian developments, however, will only be available under the terms of Nokia's new non-open license.

Source: Ars Technica

Tags: Nokia, Symbian

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