Nokia is shutting down its Qt offices in Australia, laying off the team that was responsible for developing key parts of the open source development toolkit, including the QML user interface layout system.
Nokia developer Lorn Potter was part of the Qt team in Australia and posted a message about the layoffs on the Qt community mailing list. He intends to continue working on the toolkit himself, but he is currently seeking new employment opportunities.
Former Nokia software engineer Atlant Schmidt posted a follow-up message on the mailing list thread saying that information he obtained from an unnamed source suggests that Nokia is actively looking to sell its Qt assets, effectively ending the company’s ownership of the toolkit.
Qt provides a sophisticated C++ framework for cross-platform mobile and desktop application development. It was originally created by Norwegian software company Trolltech, which was acquired by Nokia in 2008. Nokia transitioned Qt to an open governance model that has made the project more inclusive and open to independent contributors. Nokia also relicensed the open source version of the toolkit, moving it from the GPL to the more permissive LGPL.
But recent changes in Nokia’s platform strategy have raised serious questions about the company’s long-term commitment to Qt. Nokia originally intended to put Qt at the center of its third-party developer landscape, using it to provide a unified set of APIs that would work across the company’s Symbian and MeeGo devices.
Nokia’s decision to abandon MeeGo and Symbian in favor of adopting Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 left the company with little need for a mobile C++ development framework. Despite the major change in strategy, Nokia still continued to invest resources in the Qt technology stack.
Qt enthusiasts widely believed that Nokia still intended to use the toolkit in some capacity, possibly on a next-generation Linux platform (codenamed Meltemi) for low-cost handsets aimed at developing markets. That Linux platform effort was apparently gutted in Nokia’s last round of aggressive layoffs, raising new questions about what Nokia intends to do with Qt.
It’s likely that the rumor of an imminent Qt sell-off is true. Michael Larabel of Phoronix wrote this morning that statements from his own sources corroborate the information that Schmidt revealed on the mailing list. According to Phoronix, Nokia is waiting until after the official release of Qt 5.0 before it makes its move.
It’s worth noting that the transition to an open governance model will insulate Qt from collapsing in the event that Nokia withdraws its support. There are a number of other companies that are actively involved in Qt development, including RIM, which is using Qt as the standard development toolkit for its next-generation Blackberry platform.
There are also a multitude of major Qt adopters, ranging from Dreamworks to Adobe, that have an interest in ensuring that the toolkit is properly maintained. Digia purchased the Qt commercial licensing and support business from Nokia last year and is also committed to the toolkit. Digia could possibly be a candidate for acquiring the rest of the Qt assets.
Qt also has a large following in the open source software ecosystem. The community behind the KDE project recently issued a statement that outlines its views on the future of the Qt development toolkit. The group says that it will continue to use and contribute to Qt as it has in the past and that it will collaborate with other stakeholders to protect the toolkit’s future.
The KDE community uses Qt to build a popular desktop environment for Linux and a cross-platform suite of desktop software. The KDE project relies heavily on the capabilities of Qt, so the fate of the toolkit has obvious implications for KDE as a project. The group’s statement, which was published by openSUSE community manager and KDE volunteer Jos Poortvliet, sheds light on how the KDE community views the situation and how it will respond.
As the statement explains, Nokia is bound by an agreement that Trolltech signed with the KDE Free Qt Foundation which stipulates that the foundation has the right to release the Qt source code under the terms of the permissive BSD license in the event that development under the current licensing terms ceases. The agreement remains valid even if the assets are sold to other parties.
There is no question that Qt will continue to be actively developed on some level regardless of what Nokia chooses to do with the assets. There are a number of risks, however. Without Nokia’s leadership and investment, the toolkit could become fragmented (if a major stakeholder like RIM decides to fork the toolkit, for example) or development could slow down. The Qt community has weathered the turbulence of Nokia’s shifting strategy well, but the changes that are coming could pose new challenges.