Symbian: A Lesson on the Wrong Way to Use Open Source

The Register’s Andrew Orlowski recently offered a hopeful eulogy for Symbian, the still-dominant but fading mobile operating system that Nokia (s nok) took open source in 2008. Nokia hoped to revive Symbian’s importance, which once dominated more than 50 percent of the mobile market, by reinvigorating its developer base in light of a rush of Linux-based operating platforms like Android (s goog) and LiMo. It hoped in vain.

For years, companies have looked to open source to salvage dying products, and each time these efforts have failed. Often dismally.

After all, if a product can’t make the grade as a proprietary product, it will almost certainly fare worse as an open-source product. Great open-source projects are founded on great code and robust community, two things largely lacking from failed proprietary products.

With respect to Symbian, its problems go far beyond its source code, but a lack of source code is the foundation for several of them. A year after announcing that its code would be available under an open-source license, the Symbian Foundation hadn’t actually released the code. Small wonder, then, that Symbian also couldn’t match the app store momentum of Apple (s aapl), Google, or even its one-time sugar daddy, Nokia. No code, no developers.

No developers, no relevance, as its dying market share demonstrates:

Symbian: It used to be a contender

An open-source strategy generally favors challengers in a market, not incumbents. This is the genius of Google’s Android assault on Apple’s (s aapl) uber-closed iOS, and it is equally the reason that a swath of open-source upstarts — from Alfresco to BonitaSoft to Cloudera – has mounted successful challenges to the incumbents in their respective markets.

Open source, then, is a great way to spark or accelerate momentum. It’s a terrible way to reverse a product’s decline. If anything, it does the opposite by calling attention to the lack of interest in a project — freely visible through SourceForge or JIRA tickets or forum activity — and thereby compounding the indifference to the product.

Was open-source Symbian dead the moment it was announced? Perhaps. It certainly needed to demonstrate significant developer interest in the platform immediately upon announcing the code would be open-sourced, and then continuously thereafter. It did neither.  As a result, one by one Symbian’s key handset licensees like Samsung have dropped it for Android or other open-source alternatives. And it started way too late: by the time Symbian announced its code would be open-sourced, developer survey data already showed Android and OpenMoko interest running rampant. In the past two years, developer interest for Symbian has all but evaporated.

While interest remains relatively strong for Nokia’s Qt developer tools, it can’t compensate for fading interest in the overall Symbian platform.

Had Symbian gone open source when still strong with developers, and had the Foundation done a better job of engaging developers, it might have had a chance to survive as more than a dusty Wikipedia reference.

Open source isn’t a one-time announcement, coupled with a code drop. It’s exceptionally hard, ongoing work that requires equal parts evangelism, programming, and customer success stories to keep developers believing that their work matters. It’s especially difficult, as Drupal founder Dries Buytaert intimates, when a commercial entity gets involved, because it can frighten away community.

These principles aren’t exclusive to open source, of course. Consider Skype, for example. Skype appears to be pulling a Microsoft (s msft): turning inward, seeking to build out its own ecosystem rather than fostering a robust, third-party developer ecosystem. Microsoft is famous for its developer outreach on the enterprise side, but is equally famous for a failed go-it-alone approach in consumer technologies. Its dying brand, as CNN reports, reflects this failed strategy.

Both companies need to engage and encourage a third-party developer ecosystem. Open source is a critical way to accomplish this.

But neither they nor anyone else can hope to use open source as a purely palliative remedy for what ails them. Open source can be used to inspire and complement successful products. It can accelerate momentum. What it can’t do is resurrect dying technology products.

Disclosure: I work for Canonical, a Linux vendor. I am also a former Alfresco employee.

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