Sunday, May 24, 2009

One Really Big Idea

As many of you who have been following my social network status updates know, I have been spending a lot of time in London. As of the beginning of May I will be spending half my time there (and half my time in Foster City, CA) -- Lee Williams, executive director of the Symbian Foundation, has asked me to serve on his leadership team in an interim management role as head of marketing.

I have accepted because I believe in the very audacious big idea which Lee has posed as a challenge to the mobile industry and more broadly to humanity:
As information technologies become increasingly important to how we define ourselves as human beings in this time and place, to what extent should we be dependent upon a commercial entity for the definition of those technologies? The idea of the Symbian Foundation is that an independent, not-for-profit organization can serve as the hub of a community of individuals and organizations and lead this coalition to developing more innovative, more compelling, more useful products in an open, level playing field where all can compete as equals.
This hasn't been the way capitalism has addressed the problem inherent in these information technologies -- that in the implementations of systems certain control points can be inserted which, while of limited or zero usefulness to the customer, have enormous commercial implications for the creators.

The two ways in which we have addressed this problem over the past 50 years were (1) applying the idea of natural monopoly and (2) through the establishment of industry standards bodies. Both are flawed. More recently a new idea has been tried, that of open source -- Linux, Apache, Mozilla, Eclipse have all offered an open option against entrenched commercial products. These organization have often attracted competing companies as sponsors where those companies saw the open source option as a way of eroding the market share of the closed proprietary solution.

But to the best of my knowledge, Symbian is the first attempt at taking this idea to an entirely new level. Symbian already achieved the goal of the dominant closed proprietary solution in the mobile marketplace -- hundreds of million of phones 70 different handsets from a wide range of manufacturers and sold by almost every mobile network operator in the world.

And Symbian achieved this through a radical innovation for the technology industry, a commercial entity that was owned and governed by the various competing companies that it sought to serve.

But for a variety of reasons the Symbian model was showing signs that it was not fast moving enough to address new challenges in the marketplace that it had largely defined. The rise of Apple with its closed proprietary operating system and device and the introduction of Google's Android both suggested that there was a need for Symbian to change and adapt and become more fleet of foot in order to address the challenges of the next stage of evolution.

Thus the creation of Symbian Foundation -- an entirely independent and non-profit organization which is posed with two challenges -- (1) release the entire Symbian operating system as an open source project and attract tens of thousands of individuals and organizations to further develop this advanced mobile OS; (2) be the hub of a technology movement and through supporting, championing, and leading this community create a more effective and open engine for innovation than competing commercial efforts could ever produce.

We are on an exciting journey, and we have a lot to prove over the coming months and years. But I believe that our mission is a crucial one -- to prevent the kind of commercial lock-in that we have seen in the past around information technologies and insure a more open and egalitarian future, not only for the companies that chose to compete in producing these products, but for all of us that use them as well.