Nokia Bets on Open Source for Cell Phone Browser

— June 01, 2006

Mobile phone giant Nokia released its S60 mobile browser source code under the open source BSD license this week, claiming the move will promote handset platform consistency and avoid the fragmentation that has held back mobile browsing.

The source code for the S60 WebKit browser engine is being made available to open source developers on the Webkit Open Source Project site, and includes user interface (UI) reference implementation and other features for mobile performance enhancements, including a memory manager, mouse pointer, text search support, mobility support for dynamic HTML and its scripting language, and preservation of Web page layouts on mobile screens.

"It's a very significant piece of code," Nokia Technology Marketing Manager Deepika Chauhan told LinuxInsider.

Nokia is choosing to open the mobile browser engine code because the company realized there was already established open source work on the building blocks for such a platform, Chauhan explained.

"We found we were doing more of that than the things Nokia's known for -- mobility," she said, referring to HTML, Java, and other code rendering. "Why reinvent the wheel when there are good open source solutions available?"

Nokia's S60 browser, to be included initially in ESeries and NSeries devices as well as the Nokia 3250 music smartphone, is based on WebCore and JavaScriptCore components of Apple's Safari browser, and is being offered by Nokia through a partnership between the two companies.

The S60 browser attempts to replicate the true Web-rendering of desktop browsers on mobile devices, and with the help of open source, could broaden mobile browsing from a limited number of millions of "mobile-friendly" sites to more of the Internet's estimated 25 billion Web pages, Nokia claimed.

Nokia is hopeful open source developers will take to the S60 browser code, and the company believes the software can address browser compatibility and testing issues that are aggravated by the many different mobile browser solutions.

"We want to create a consistency," said Chauhan. "We feel that browsing has not taken off in the mobile space because of these problems."

She also touted the mobility enhancements of the Nokia browser code, which addresses Javascript bandwidth issues and adds memory handling, among other features.

However, with the plethora of different software platforms competing in the mobile handset market, including Symbian , PalmOS, Microsoft various Linux operating systems and others, it is difficult to say whether a single solution can emerge as the industry norm, Gartner Research Director Phil Redman told LinuxInsider.

"There are so many varieties of operating systems and platforms to the same software segment," he said.

None of the platforms, including Java or open source software, appear to be emerging as industry favorites, and this comes to the detriment of the whole industry, Redman said.

"Just like the PC world, it's not going to be big business unless [vendors] have one platform they can all run their applications on," he remarked.

The Nokia code will likely be used right away by some vendors and manufacturers, including a Nokia client that wanted a fully open source mobile software solution with Linux, but could not include the Nokia browser software until now, according to Chauhan.

"Now they can," she said.

Nokia also realized that to satisfy open source developers, it had to make the entire extraction layer, required for HTML decoding and other code implementation, of the Nokia browser available, Chauhan added.

Nokia chose to use the BSD open source license, described by the company as "a highly permissive software license with few requirements that is among the most popular licenses among free software developers worldwide," for two reasons: the company wanted an easily-understood license; and it wanted to avoid license proliferation, according to Chauhan.

The growing number of open source licenses has been a cause for concern in the open source community, and companies are being encouraged to stick to the core, existing licenses, and even to abandon their own licenses, which are often tailored to individual company objectives.

The BSD license was also the license Apple was using for the code already, Chauhan noted.

The end goal of open-sourcing S60, she said, is to boost adoption among developers, promote consistency in the mobile browser space and to make Web content creation easier for developers to create, and, in the end, for mobile users to obtain.

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