Gnomes, trolls and the maemo lands

29Jan08

Nokia going after Trolltech and Trolltech going inside Nokia, that’s an interesting move. Somewhat surprising move (I also knew about it by reading the press releases), but sensible in fact. The community reactions have been as interesting. No wonder, in this story you can find all the elements for a free software soap opera and for hilarious pub-level discussions as well. I believe the actual steps are slightly less emotional, though.

Obviously people want to know how this affects to maemo, and I made some research to confirm the guess. When it comes to maemo, there are no Trolltech/Qt related plans at the moment. As you know the maemo stack depends heavily on the GNOME components. Nokia has been supporting many GNOME projects and the GNOME ecosystem itself (Foundation and some companies) both with resources, public backing and code. There are no changes in these relationships and, in fact, within the context of evolution of the maemo platform the trend is to push more innovation through these channels and to strengthen the collaboration with the community upstream.

On the mid term… well, nobody knows. What follows are my thoughts today.

Looking the Nokia/Trolltech move from a KDE vs GNOME perspective would be a mistake. Looking at my collection of GNOME t-shirts I’m also tempted in taking this situation from a football fan point of view, but things are much more serious than that. There are many actors and software components in this Middle Earth of mobile platforms where maemo lives. The potential combinations are many and everybody is looking for the right one. The competition is fierce, specially when it comes to the mobile desktop. What if you need the best of both platforms to succeed with a proposal based on Linux & open source?

Qt is one piece of the KDE project, as GTK+ is one piece of the GNOME platform, but there is a lot more inside both projects, and even more elsewhere in the open source community. Many GNOME components present in the maemo platform (some of them also part of the Freedesktop.org initiative) are top class and Nokia keeps contributing to them. The Trolltech acquisition plans don’t affect these components in any way, not even in the mid term.

GTK+, Qt and related UI toolkits are definitely in the hot spot, receiving from many directions a big pressure to push the next mobile user interfaces. Nokia invests in GTK+ development for maemo and the Trolltech acquisition implies that Nokia plans to invest more in Qt development. This shows to me a clearer commitment to the open source game. Additionally, both investments benefit GNOME, KDE and the free desktop development in general, mobile or not. My conclusion: an interesting move.

If you still don’t get why Nokia wants to acquire Trolltech, please continue reading.

A first advice to any free software lover willing to understand: get to know what are the main businesses of Nokia and Trolltech nowadays. Yes, Nokia sells phones and Nokia has a Linux & GTK+ based platform called maemo for the not-a-phone Internet tablets. And yes, Trolltech supports the development of KDE. But both do a lot more, and their core business strategies have other key elements.

Trolltech develops Qt, a cross-platform application development framework that powers KDE and is also licensed to many commercial software projects. Nokia pushes the Symbian OS with several own platforms on top like S60, <edited>plus S40 running on top of its own Nokia developed OS</edited>, plus several non-mobile applications like Nokia PC Suite (developed with Qt, by the way). Trolltech’s toolkit and its C++ native language (which is native in Symbian as well) fit very well in Nokia’s short term strategy to improve cross-compatibility between the Symbian platforms. If making a good use of the Qt library helps having in maemo some of the cool stuff available in S60, all the better then.

This is the main reason why Nokia wants to acquire Trolltech. There are other interesting elements in the table like the Linux & open source skills but none of them would push such move alone. Personally, I wish getting Trolltech’s intelligence in house will help in other fronts as well, remarkably adding weight to the open source & community involvement agendas many of us are pushing internally. Putting Qt’s cross-platform capabilities to work on the PC side would be also nice, getting better support for Mac & Linux users.

All in all a good move if you, like me, think that a company like Nokia can have an important role pushing Linux & open source to the real mainstream. Even if it takes a while.

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13 Responses to “Gnomes, trolls and the maemo lands”

  1. That’s probably the most constructive viewpoint I’ve seen taken by anybody so far. I think people just want to be reassured that Maemo and the related support to GTK+ etc. won’t falter in light of the recent acquisition. As you say this goes far beyond a football team analogy, and far beyond Gnome and KDE. Exciting times.

  2. Yes. Exactly. :)

  3. 3 Johan Bilien

    S40 is not based on Symbian, it’s based on a small OS used by Nokia alone.

  4. 4 troll

    Thank you, solid reasoning. The only thing that I think that could be added is that by purchasing Trolltech Nokia can control that none of its competitors can do exactly the same.

  5. @dead1nside: You can be reassured about GTK+ in the short term, as said. Beyond that… I don’t think mobile platforms are a place to be reassured about anything these days. If Microsoft, Google, Apple, Intel and so on can’t be sure about anything to be in your hands in the future, why Nokia, maemo or the GTK+ crew should? In order to move forward, it’s better to have some (exciting) lack of reassurement than some (potential) excess of complacency.

    @Johan, thanks. Edited.

    @troll: Nokia can do one thing and can also do the opposite, even simultaneously. So big is this house. However, looking at what Nokia has done with their software platforms I’m pretty optimistic. Symbian was explicitly designed to be deployed by companies competing, and maemo has almost nothing in it that couldn’t be used by other integrators. In fact, as soon as Intel showed interest in the platform and also in the context of GNOME Mobile, Nokia has tried to satisfy the requests for sharing code and work.

    I really don’t see Nokia playing aggressively with the Trolltech ownership and the licensing of software. btw, nor I expect any disruption with the KDE project: Nokia knows pretty well the risks and opportunities of playing with communities in a GPL framework. Again, we can speculate but we can also look at the relationship between Nokia and GNOME in order to gather some precedents. I see no reasons to be apocalyptic.

  6. There is something I don’t get. Trolltech needs to be company independent in order to make a good job. If Nokia controls them no other company will want to invest in qtopia, as long as Nokia gets the right to stop developing Open Source and start a private modification without warning. How is it good for QT and Nokia then?

  7. I keep insisting on the usefulness of knowing more about Nokia & Trolltech businesses if you want to understand this business move.

    Trolltech’s company vision is “Qt Everywhere”. Nokia can help achieving this.

    Trolltech’s motto is “Code less. Crete more. Deploy everywhere.” Nokia needs to do and offer precisely this for their different platforms and the developers working on them.

    About Qtopia, look for instance these pages:
    http://www.symbian.com/about/overview/licensees/licensees.html
    http://www.s60.com/business/community/licensees
    http://www.s60.com/life/s60phones/browseDevices.do
    http://trolltech.com/products/qtopia/devices

    Where do you see Nokia isolated from the rest of competitors? Where do you see an inability of Nokia to license S60 to other companies? Where do you see an impossibility of Nokia pushing with the trolls Qtopia to similar scenarios?

    About open source. Where have you seen an open source development moved to proprietary by Nokia? Not that I’m aware. Instead, Nokia has opensourced software and every year the amount of open source code copyrighted or supported by Nokia increases.

    About Qt. Customers include Adobe, Skype and Google – Nokia has active business channels with the three of them.

    Really, you might argue the move, but it makes sense.

  8. 8 Ludovic Danigo

    Interesting analysis. Trolltech acquisition make indeed a lot of sens. Even more so as there was rumour of economic problem so that actually a good news for QT.

    IMHO, you could update your post with the licensees information of your last post as it bring another light to the matter. I personally didn’t know that LG and Samsung were licensing S60. This good for QTopia and for OSS on the mobile front.

  9. 9 Est-dragon

    It will be interesting to see how other companies will react to these move? Will Motorola now switch to support GTK+ with QT in the hands of Nokia? To depend on a technology in the hands of a rival doesn’t sound sane…

  10. Good that you found interesting those public URLs. btw, did you know about this one? http://www.fsf.org/donate/patron/index_html

    I had to smile reading some comments pointing to the pro-patents and pro-DRM aspects of Nokia, fearing of a company potentially aggressive towards i.e. the GPL. Well, as you see it’s not that simple to put labels on things and store them in boxes.

    Interesting times, definitely.

  11. 11 Sean

    Quim,

    I think what happens is that companies who currently license from Trolltech get really worried if some Nokia Devices/R&D department absorbs them. They need to treat Trolltech like they are treating the Navteq acquisition. It really needs to be a standard subsidiary.

    Sean

  12. I guess they did it just to pull the rag under Motorola. Motorolas phones are largely based on Qt. Suddenly getting Motorola specific Qt bugs fixed become impossible and all those 100 rented Qt developers in Motorola offices won’t have their contracts renewed.

    No wonder Motorola rushed to announced “We were done with Qt, anyway.”


  1. 1 What does Nokia’s acquisition of Trolltech mean to Maemo? at Internet Tablet Talk

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