Symbian? Is that a new brand of indigestion tablet?
Ha, no. The Symbian platform is an open source operating system for mobile devices, backed by the not-for-profit Symbian Foundation.

Didn’t Symbian used to be a commercial entity back in the day?
Yes indeed – previously, it was a company that licensed its software to handset makers for a fee, known as Symbian Ltd.

Symbian Ltd was founded in 1998 by Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia and Psion. Psion, you may recall, was big in PDAs – the connectivity-free electronic organisers that preceded smartphones – while Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia dabbled in mobiles. Together they were hoping to capitalise on the convergence of mobiles and PDAs – and Symbian was the resulting lovechild.

However in June last year Symbian Ltd announced to the world it was to transform into an open source Foundation.

So why did it decide to convert to open source?
Any technology you can think of will have seen considerable changes in the last 10 years but the smartphone market in particular has evolved massively since Symbian came into being more than a decade ago.

Not only are there many more device makers around now – and more competition in the mobile OS stakes – but consumers have changed the character of a market that used to be entirely enterprise-focused.

Not only have they helped drive smartphone growth but they’ve brought higher expectations of devices in terms of their usability, functionality and third-party offerings – meaning OSes have had to respond accordingly.

However, it was the swathe of software makers that entered the market a couple of years ago that really turned up the heat on Symbian by making its OS look increasingly dated and clunky – Apple’s iPhone OS, which arrived in 2007, showed that mobile software could be smooth and intuitive, for example.

That year also saw the announcement of Android – Google’s open source software platform for mobiles, while another Linux-based mobile OS effort, the LiMo Foundation, also came into being around that time.

So suddenly Symbian Ltd was facing serious and growing competition – to both its software and its business model. The impact can be seen in recent market share stats – despite growth in the smartphone market as a whole, Symbian’s own share continues to decline year-on-year.

There was pressure on another front too: Apple’s creation of the App Store put third-party applications and services at the centre of the smartphone. Suddenly, if your OS didn’t have an army of developers behind it, it began to feel at a disadvantage.

Being open source is a way for the Symbian software to try and stay in the game by speeding up the development of a unified and competitive OS platform, and also by making the OS more attractive to developers, removing the fee-paying barriers that prevented them getting hold of the code and playing around with it.

Going free means the software is more likely to survive, especially when other OSes such as Windows Mobile continue to require a licence fee for use.

But ultimately the answer to the question is Nokia.

What was in it for Nokia?
Just as Symbian Ltd was facing stiffer competition and struggling market share, so too was Nokia – in any case the Mighty Finn is the biggest user of the Symbian OS. Success in the smartphone market is increasingly about having the best software and services so Nokia also needs to up its game to compete with attractive iPhones and agile Androids. Its answer? Being the driving force behind the creation of the Symbian Foundation to build an open source community and get developers improving and working with the OS.

So how did the transition from Symbian Ltd to the Symbian Foundation happen?
Nokia bought up the Symbian shares it didn’t already own, for a cool £209m, so that it could bequeath them to the Symbian Foundation and thus facilitate its creation.

Nokia also gifted the Symbian OS and S60 user interface software to the Foundation, while Sony Ericsson and Motorola contributed technology from the UIQ user interface, and Japan’s NTT DoCoMo gave assets from the MOAP(S) platform.

S60, UIQ, MOAP(S)… What’s with all the weird acronyms?
Historically there have been various flavours of the Symbian OS – UIQ, for instance, was a graphical layer built on it that also provided additional functionality. It was mostly used on Sony Ericsson and Motorola devices. S60 is another such skin – used by LG, Nokia, Samsung and others.

The code from all the different flavours of Symbian has been given over to the Foundation. But the plan for the all-new Symbian platform is unification – in other words, not having several different flavours of OS making life harder for developers. Instead there will be one unified platform with a common user interface framework.

And fewer acronyms?

So when exactly are we going to see this all-new unified Symbian OS platform?
Good question.

Writing on the Symbian Foundation blog earlier this year, David Wood, a member of the Foundation’s leadership team, said the first devices based on Symbian^2 – the first open version of the OS – could be reaching the market around the end of 2009 – “depending on the integration plans, the level of customisation, and the design choices made by manufacturers”.

Platform releases are planned twice yearly, so you can expect a Symbian^3 release to follow six months later.

For more on the release schedule see the Symbian Foundation blog.

Whether this timescale is quick enough for the OS to catch up with the functionality and usability of rival platforms such as iPhone and Android remains to be seen. But it’s worth stressing that even if it’s not currently quite as fancy as its competitors, Symbian still has the largest marketshare of all the smartphone OSes out there (albeit a declining one) – with 51 per cent of the market in the second quarter of this year, according to analyst Gartner. By contrast, Android’s share was just under two per cent.

Anything else?
Smartphones are not necessarily the only mobile gadgets on the Foundation’s radar – for instance it has demoed a version of the OS running on an Atom based motherboard from Intel. Atom chips are of course often found in netbooks.