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Qt on Maemo and Symbian: Can Nokia execute in time?

by Sravan Kundojjala | Oct 12, 2009

Last week Nokia announced official Qt support for Maemo. The community work to port Qt to Maemo has been already underway and the official Qt port to Maemo is expected to take things to the next level. Nokia is betting on Qt because it provides them much more flexibility in terms of hardware and software platform adoption. In simple terms, Qt is an abstraction layer on top of underlying hardware and software. The plan is to replace current platform specific APIs with Qt APIs which almost covers commonly used functions. Nokia already announced Qt support for S60 / Symbian platform in October 2008 and the project is currently in Technology Preview phase. We expect Nokia's transition to Qt to be completed by late 2010 or early 2011. The Symbian Foundation is expected to replace its AvKon UI framework in favour of a Qt-based Orbit UI framework when Symbian^4, its fourth iteration, becomes available in 2011.

The platform abstraction layers / cross-platform technologies are nothing new in the cell phone industry as they promise to solve the important problem, fragmentation. The platform abstraction layers include Java, BREW, Flash, Silverlight and web technologies. Unlike other cross-platform technologies Qt promises consistency of native applications across different platforms. Nokia is betting on Qt because it can control the direction and we believe that owning the primary technologies used in its device portfolio is crucial for Nokia to maintain its margins. We observe that Nokia’s software assets including Maemo, Symbian, Trolltech and web browsing technology are all open sourced and the company is trying to control its growing software R&D costs by using open source software.

Our concern is that until late 2010 we won't see Qt based UI and application frameworks in Maemo and Symbian based commercial devices in fully fledged manner and this could leave room for competitors Android and iPhone to attack Nokia. Incidentally, for Nokia, the software transition started at a time when its competitors are agile and aggressive with their plans. Nokia's plans to switch to Qt in 2010-11 timeframe could delay developer's commitment to its smartphone platforms Maemo and Symbian. The current Maemo 5 OS used in the Nokia N900 uses GTK+ framework and Nokia is expected to switch to Qt in 2010. We feel that Nokia could have delayed the N900 launch until 2010 but this shows how desperate Nokia is to tackle new era competitors Google and Apple. We are also cautious about execution challenges for Nokia in this mission and if Nokia can demonstrate the value of Qt and excite the developer community then the company should keep its smartphone lead for a long time to come.

Sravan Kundojjala

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