Taste of freedom

Lee Williams, executive director of the Symbian Foundation, talks to Mike Hibberd about the body’s achievements so far, his hopes and expectations for the near future and the benefits of being a not for profit organisation.

The Symbian Foundation’s number one message is that it is not the organisation it was. The royalty harvesting machine of Symbian UK Ltd is long gone. In its place is the prominent branding and evangelism of the non-profit Foundation, an entity built to enable and support the ecosystem around it.

So says Lee Williams, in whom the Foundation has a leader who is prepared to hammer home that key message in the clearest possible terms. A veteran of Palm and Nokia (he led the S60 software team at the Finnish firm) Williams has Symbian in his DNA. Yet he wastes no opportunity to identify the flaws in the way the old organisation was run, and to highlight the benefits of the new incarnation.

“You have an entire mobile industry of companies that, largely, are exercising control point tactics and classic manufacturing business practices,” he says. “They have missed the boat in terms of where consumers perceive value in the market place. They’ve missed the boat in terms of touch technologies, in not realising that people would want to run their own customer applications on handsets, on VoIP, on the services experience…” he continues.

The Symbian Foundation exists in part to thwart such tactics and get everyone on the next boat leaving the dock. But not everyone wants to set sail. Even within the Foundation, which has dropped in headcount from thousands to hundreds, Williams says, understanding and enthusiasm for the new face of Symbian varies widely from person to person.

Broadly there are three groups of employees, he says. The first are “not easy at all” with the fundamental shifts in the business and need “a heck of a lot of work” to bring them round. The second might be described as cautiously optimistic; open to the ideas but wanting more evidence of their value, while the third are the true evangelists. These people, and Williams clearly counts himself among them, are the ones who are saying: “‘This is the way to the future. We should have been doing this years ago’,” he says.

And so Williams identifies the previous structure of Symbian as the mechanism that allowed the control point tactics to continue unchecked. “This had to do with companies being dominant; Nokia, certain silicon providers, Samsung and others. They were the ones exercising these tactics. Symbian Ltd was simply a vehicle. ‘Don’t give the software to ODMs in Asia’ was a mandate that the board I sat on gave these guys over and over again.”

That was then, though, and today the Symbian Foundation wants everyone to get involved, and to quash the perception that Symbian, whatever its form, is just Nokia by another name. Williams argues the Symbian business model should have changed when its reliance on Nokia became unarguable—“when it was clear that Symbian was unable to generate a partner other than Nokia that could take the technology to the next level,” as he puts it.

So when asked about the Foundation’s three major points of progress this year it is perhaps unsurprising that he cites first the fact that, “we have managed to start our distribution cycle. We’re managing a collection of code volumes which are contributions from others, not just Nokia.” Parts of the software are already open source, Williams says.

The other two achievements he mentions are more generic; the successful rebrand of the organisation and the securing of good quality staff. The new branding, which you’ll see everywhere around you at the SEE event—“yellow hearts, robots and childish drawings” as Williams has it—means that Symbian Foundation “now has people’s attention,” he says.

“We are a company in the age of conversation, doing things very differently and our brand and identity has enabled this. It was ambitious to make that change; we had a lot of people say we should just sit on the old brand awhile and effect a more commercialised transition. We didn’t do that and it seems to be paying off.”

That the organisation has attracted the talent to put behind the brand Williams concedes is something of a surprise. “It’s hard to go to people in the business who have 20 years’ experience in a particular area and get them to come on board when we’re not an equity business,” he says. “We can’t offer stock, we don’t have a big IPO looming and, frankly, we don’t pay very well. But we have got talent on board that has surpassed my expectations in terms of their abilities, their passion for what we’re doing and their dedication.”

The move to non-profit status is about as fundamental as shifts get. It prompted one departing Symbian employee to state: “I don’t want to work for a charity.” But a business can still be a business without chasing profit, Williams insists. “We are not running a charity,” he says. “we’re loaning a deep amount of business experience in various areas to help companies go through this value shift in the market place and helping them to embrace it, to build products and to do things differently.”

“Symbian is the most efficient micro kernel and modular architecture on ARM period, hands down and by years. If you wanted to, you couldn’t go and invest in and design another system and do it in less than three years…”

The criticism most frequently levelled at open source as an approach to software development is that progress is too easily encumbered by committees and interminable debate. Williams argues that open source operation is not inherently slower than any other means of development. Rather, he says, the drag is caused by the amount of time it takes to convince various players that the model is the right one.

“Think about IPR alone,” he says. “How do you persuade a large multinational conglomerate, making billions in IP, with tens of thousands of people in the business to protect, that they should start creating IP in an open source stream. That’s the stuff that causes latency and that’s part of what we need to do. It’s not about making us faster, it’s about helping others further embrace our model and our approach to doing things so that they get faster themselves.”

Nonetheless, celerity is crucial for the Symbian Foundation, which needs to get product into the market to catch up to its competitors; RIM, Apple and Android, among others. Williams predicts that between 30 and 50 handsets based on the Foundation’s platform will become available in the next year, a period in which he also hopes to see more than 50 per cent of the code move to the Eclipse Public Licence and the “development skills of China and Japan unleashed.”

He is aware, though, that his competitors are making headway all the while. “It is important for us to get share in the market and I would be foolish to say that it’s not a concern looking at what others are doing,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s a battle of platforms, I think it’s a battle of eco-systems and a battle of mind share for those who innovate within ecosystems and create value.”

And despite the head start enjoyed by other ecosystems, Williams is betting on the technological superiority of the Symbian product. “Symbian is the most efficient micro kernel and modular architecture on ARM period, hands down and by years,” he says. “If you wanted to, you couldn’t go and invest in and design another system and do it in less than three years.”

He suggests that competing platforms, while ahead in terms of product, have yet to prove themselves. “I have yet to see anybody make money or sustain investments in Android,” he says. “Partly that’s because it’s early days. But you have to wonder whether or not there are flaws in the Android model. Yes, Google gets ad impressions and cookies and applications out there but does anybody make money? Is the level of investment required for ar silicon manufacturer or an operator any different with an Android offering than it is with others in the marketing place? Time will tell, but I’m not so sure.”

If Williams comes across as outspoken it might be because, by his own assessment, a not for profit organisation like the Foundation is free to speak without concern about material impact on the business in a way that a commercially driven outfit might not be. Looking forward to the SEE event, he says, the kind of open dialogue in which he is able to engage is going to be a central feature.

“The point of SEE is that we’ll run a live idea exchange, which we’ll continue on an ongoing basis. We’re also going to do something unique because, instead of taking the information behind a corporate wall, we’re going to publish it. We’ll have people building experiences around it, we’ll criticise it if that’s what it takes, poke fun of it, if that’s what it takes and that information, for our member companies and others, will directly influence product development.”

Freedom seems central to Williams’ enthusiasm for the Symbian Foundation, in particular the release from corporate bondage. And this gives rise to his evangelism for the project: “This isn’t an OS war, we’re not pariticpating in one, we’re leading people to the future. We’re going to establish a social currency associated with that so we know what’s a good idea or a bad idea,” he says. “And we’re going to have some fun doing it.”

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