Symbian Gains EU Backing to Prevent an Android Future

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Symbian, the open-sourced platform used in Nokia’s smartphones, gained a €22 million ($30.8 million) investment from the ARTEMIS Joint Technology Initiative, a public-private European Union initiative for research and development in embedded systems. The non-profit Symbian Foundation, which controls the Symbian platform, will lead development with a newly named consortium called SYMBEOSE, meaning “Symbian – the Embedded Operating System for Europe.” The new consortium is composed of 24 organizations from eight EU nations.

Upon first glance, I gathered that the Symbian operating system was continuing a defensive transformation while others think Symbian is as good as dead. After all, Lee Williams, the top exec of the Symbian Foundation recently left, as did Symbian supporters Samsung and Sony Ericsson, both of which are focusing smartphone development on Google’s Android platform. Samsung’s move in particular is paying off with over 5 million Android device sales in under six months. But even as Android continues to gain market share, Symbian isn’t going away; Nokia still believes it to be the best platform for its fight against iOS and Android devices, while Sharp and Fujitsu continue to use Symbian as well.

Instead, this looks to be a financial injection from an EU-sponsored research project, which is a small positive for Symbian. However, it appears to be due, at least in part, to concerns that Google’s platform is encroaching. It seems to me that some EU members, through the SYMBEOSE consortium, don’t want Android on embedded devices and are banding together to stave off such a future under robot control. Android is already powering televisions and has potential to be in scores of other Internet-connected devices in the future.

Here’s an excerpt from the Symbian blog explaining some of the SYMBEOSE initiatives which illustrate WHO’s fears of Symbian losing relevancy down the road:

Broadly speaking, the proposed advances to the Symbian platform will focus on radically improving the basis for new device creation on Symbian. Additional work will concentrate on a set of core platform enablers that will support the types of mobile services that will be most prevalent in the near future. For example, the SYMBEOSE initiative will develop new core platform capabilities, providing the best possible levels of power efficiency and improving Symbian’s current, market-leading offering in this area. This will be achieved by delivering fresh optimizations which harness the rapidly developing area of multi-core processing used in conjunction with new techniques in Asymmetrical Multiprocessing.

Another good example relates to new concepts in “cloud-computing”. Although this is already having a huge impact on the way in which personal content is being consumed and managed, the technical basis of how cloud computing should be supported for future mobile devices is still poorly defined.

It sounds somewhat like high-level mobile industry research to me, which isn’t suprising since the ARTEMIS Joint Technology Inititive includes universities and research organizations, in addition to network operators and other industry players as members.

Interestingly, Nokia and the Symbian Foundation tout how the open-sourced Symbian approach can benefit everyone involved. And yet, the biggest benefactors — the handset makers — have been abandoning the platform for Android or hedging an Android bet with their own operating systems, such as Samsung with its Bada initiative. For the moment, SYMBEOSE looks like a way to increase foundation membership and the number of organizations looking to use or better the Symbian platform while getting these folks to pay to play. I’ll be watching with curiosity to to see if any SYMBEOSE research trickles down to improvements in consumer devices running Symbian, or this effort is simply a membership drive.

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