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Symbian Finds New Patron, Perhaps New Purpose
Says It’s Getting €22M from EC and Embedded Systems Industry Group
By: Tim Negris
Nov. 8, 2010 01:00 PM
Symbian, the open source mobile OS spun out of Nokia and once the Big Kahuna of smartphones OSs, announced this week that it would be participating in new projects funded in part by the EC and run through the Artemis Industrial Association R&D combine, to the tune of some twenty-two million Euros. But, there are some things about this event that are odd and make one wonder what is the real story.
€22M is about $31M and that's a lot of cabbage, especially for an open source project that has seen harder times since losing the love of its birth mother Nokia and the support of two if its biggest handset partners, Sony-Ericsson and Samsung. According to Garnter, though, as of the first quarter of this year, Symbian's smartphone market share was still 41% and only slightly less than RIM, Android and iOS combined!
North Americans may find those numbers startling, because we do not see many Symbian devices in phone stores here. But, in Europe and Asia, and other regions where buying a phone and engaging a carrier are largely unrelated, Symbian-powered smart phones have long been available from more than a dozen manufacturers.
But, as good as 40% market share looks right now, a year ago it was 50%, and Android and the iPhone have barely started in those populous places where Symbian has found its primary strength in the past. All things considered, recent rumors of a coming collapse for the project have not been hard to believe. Look at Palm, another once and future king that is now a mere captive consort.
So, Symbian raising big money is certainly newsworthy. Unfortunately, the way the news has come out is confusing, strange and painful.
The news first appeared two days ago in a Symbian blog entry penned by a Symbian "Technology Manager" named RichardC (Collins), and did not as actual news on the Symbian.org site. The blog post announced that 24 major technology and research organizations had formed a consortium "to propose development projects that will enhance the Symbian platform for the benefit of the entire Symbian ecosystem."
It went on to say that this would be happening under an EC-sponsored initiative and with the endorsement and support of the ARTEMIS Joint Undertaking, and that the EC has granted 11 million Euros toward project funding and another 11 million would be forthcoming from consortium members. Oddly, the ARTEMIS site does not mention Symbian or SYMBEOSE anywhere at all as of this writing.
TheSymbian blog post includes the statement, "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."
Elsewhere in the post, it mentions mobile some more and also points to "asymmetrical multiprocessing" and "cloud computing" as key project themes. But the name of the consortium, SYMBEOSE, and the ostensible focus of the ARTEMIS group seem to seriously belie the blog's suggestion that the project is about making the Symbian mobile OS better.
Embedded, Mobile, or Both
SYMBEOSE stands for "Symbian Embedded OS for Europe" and ARTEMIS stands for "Advanced Research & Technology for EMbedded Intelligence and Systems". While not unrelated, mobile and embedded are two very different universes, so which is it?
Then, on the Symbian.org site, there is a hard-to-find 4-page presentation from September that summarizes the status of the SYMBEOSE proposal to ARTEMIS. It perpetuates the confusion by asserting that the goal of the project is to make Symbian "the focus for future European mobile technological development" and going on to use the word "mobile" four more times in the four pages of the presentation. The presentation answers the rhetorical question, "Why Symbian?" with these bullets:
Outside its role in the SYMBEOSE acronym, the word "embedded" only appears once in the presentation, as a theme under "Platforms Beyond Mobile."
The excellent site unwiredview.com contains the only detailed reporting seen so far on this whole business, by someone fluent in Euro-Bureau who can decode some of the organizational details of the relationship between Symbian Foundation, SYMBEOSE, and ARTEMIS. The report also includes a more detailed breakdown of the project, and it is mostly mobile-oriented and looks like what the Symbian Foundation would have done on their own if they had the money.
We Don't Need No Stinking Smartphones
So, what is happening here? Virtually all the ARTEMIS funded projects for 2008 and 2009 pertain to vehicle telematics, manufacturing automation, energy systems, health care devices, large scale multi-core computing, embedded systems architecture, sensor networks, and the like. There is nothing about smart phones, multimedia streaming, online payment systems, or anything else related to Symbian's to-do list. Why is ARTEMIS, in conjunction with the EU, funneling over $30M to SYMBEOSE, which, according to the Symbian Foundation, seems to be about embedded systems in name only and all about smartphones otherwise?
My guess is that the Symbian foundation and ecosystem are unknowingly or knowingly being coopted into repurposing the Symbian OS from running PDAs and smartphones to serving as the basis for a multi-purpose embedded OS sponsored and controlled by the EU and its primary industrial and academic organizations.
Such a thing could limit exposure to industrial malware, like the Stuxnet virus that recently invaded Siemens SCADA power plant control systems. It could limit dependency on and cost from "foreign" embedded systems software from Microsoft, Texas Instruments, and other non-European concerns. And, most importantly, it could provide a single standardized pan-European platform for a wide range of public safety, industrial, logistics, transportation and energy control, and health care applications.
All of those things are coming to be grouped under the rising rubric of "machine-to-machine" (M2M) computing and communications and it is my belief that, although the term is not being used in relation to the SYMBEOSE project, that is what it is all about.
Keep 'Em Typing, Tell 'Em Later?
Either the Symbian Foundation leadership is in the dark about SYMBEOSE's real purpose (doubtful), in denial about it (possible), or they are being a bit duplicitous with the Symbian community (hard to believe but also possible), keeping them coding by letting them believe that mobile meme is somehow at the core of the project, and that it remains a key to their collective future together. They can be weaned away from that notion over time, a process that will become easier, as the iPhone goes global, RIM hangs in there, and with each new Symbian OEM departure to Android, proprietary homegrown OSs, like Samsung's Bada, or even Windows 7.
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