Business, Software Programs

Analysis: How Microsoft Nokia Deal Affects Open Source

A lot has been said already about the partnership between Nokia and Microsoft. We have already heard the good, the bad, so here is the ugly. Where there are winners, there are losers as well. In this case the winners are clearly Microsoft and possibly Nokia, depending on how well the deal works out. On the loser side we have a couple Open Source projects and Intel.

Newly formed Nokia Microsoft Ecosystem. Note the icon to the left of Nokia's logotypeThis is not going to be yet another rant on how good or bad the decision of Nokia was. A change was necessary as the previous offerings didn’t deliver and going with Microsoft was one of a few options. It was the one option the management deemed the most attractive and as such the business decision was valid. Shareholders apparently didn’t agree, as the losses of Nokia stock showed. But you have to consider that a lot of shareholders bet on the future while only believing in the present and the past.

So what about those Open Source projects Nokia is involved in? The previous strategy entailed Symbian and MeeGo. MeeGo was slated to be the successor of the Maemo OS for high-end smartphones and possibly tablets, trickling down to mainstream products subsequently. Symbian is Nokia’s bread and butter smartphone OS which they use in a broad lineup of current products and was planned to go to entry level markets in the near future. That last part of the strategy will actually become true, as Windows Phone 7 will initially serve as a high-end replacement, while Nokia still plans to sell another 150 million Symbian-based phones.

What both platforms have in common is that they are built around the Qt GUI framework that is also available on other platforms. All this software is available under Open Source licenses, meaning also other companies and individuals can contribute if they chose to. Nokia stated that they want to continue MeeGo, Symbian and Qt development. But seriously how likely is this strategy to become a reality – when even the CEO of Intel says that’s not expected?

At the MWC Nokia also touted the business advantages of the deal with Microsoft, specifically citing savings in the software development area. On the one hand they claim to continue development, while on the other hand they want to save money since Microsoft is primarily responsible for the development. How are these contrary goals supposed to line up?

Here is how: Symbian will get minor improvements during its remaining lifecycle. Once Nokia is done with selling Symbian-based devices – they will be done with Symbian development too. Anything else doesn’t make sense, business-wise. Regarding MeeGo it’s actually ridiculous how Nokia wants to reduce their commitment and use it as a development vehicle as they say. Sounds more like a slap in the face. The one product they plan to ship with MeeGo is probably part of old contracts they can’t maneuver out anymore.

After considering all of this Qt is the last Open Source project Nokia was heavily involved in. Once Symbian and MeeGo are no longer important to Nokia, the same will be true for Qt. Qt on the Windows Phone platform is not even an option since it uses a completely different development environment. Even Qt developers agree that this would hurt platform consistency. So from a business point of view, at this point it no longer makes sense to fund Qt development once it’s no longer relevant for Nokia’s products. Under this light the claims of how much Nokia likes Qt look a bit moot and the fate of Qt hangs on the future of 150 million more Symbian phones and the use of MeeGo as a development vehicle. Not quite the thing to bet in the long term – thus, Nokia is abandoning their own ecosystem of around 350 million Symbian-powered phones.

Thus, those Open Source projects will be without Nokia’s support in the near future. Nokia will probably slowly but steadily reduce resource investment in Open Source projects until they have reached the point where they can withdraw full stop. This won’t happen until later this year or 2012, but in the following years it seems very likely. Conspiracy theorists could even go as far as allege this to be part of an agenda at Microsoft to weaken Open Source projects. In reality, there is no conspiracy. Just business.

The projects, especially Qt, will probably continue to exist and evolve on their own. Intel plans to drive MeeGo development forward, probably in the direction of tablets as netbooks are all but dead. Qt is used in quite a few open source and commercial projects, so it won’t entirely go away anytime soon. However, it remains to be seen whether the Open Source community is able to continue a working cross-platform strategy or whether the project will be split due to differences of opinion.