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Nokia: $150M to the Trolltech Under the Bridge

Surprisingly, Nokia’s acquisition of Trolltech has elicited the least inbound inquiry of all the recent open source M&A activity. The MySQL deal triggered more or less a complete meltdown, and even the smaller Covalent acquisition got the phones and IM channels ringing. As an aside on the Covalent deal, James and I were joking this morning that our new slogan should be “Work with RedMonk, get acquired,” as our list of graduates is both long and distinguished (Covalent, MySQL, Scalix, Sleepycat, etc). Maybe we should start a pool on who’s next? Oh right, gambling is illegal.

Anyway, to get back to business, the Trolltech deal as mentioned inspired a minimum of commentary, through either the regular channels or IRC. Which I find perplexing, since from where I sit it’s a significant deal with major implications.

One deserving of a Q&A.

Q: To begin, anything to disclose?
A: Not really, in this case. Neither Nokia nor Trolltech are RedMonk customers, nor for the most part are their major respective competitors. Probably the closest thing to a necessary disclosure is the fact that I provided a quote for the launch of the GNOME Mobile and Embedded project.

Q: How about a quick recap of the news for those of us who missed it?
A: Sure. Nokia yesterday announced the acquisition of Norwegian open source vendor Trolltech for ~150M.

Q: Ok, Nokia we all probably know, but who is Trolltech and what do they do?
A: Trolltech is probably best known for Qt (pronounced “cute”), a cross-platform UI framework that is analagous to GTK. Though best known for its role in the KDE project, Qt is embedded in a number of other projects such as Google Earth, Skype, and – this one was news to me – Photoshop Elements (see Wikipedia for that one).

They’re also responsible for Qtopia, a derivative of Qt that’s mobile friendly. The only Qtopia device I’ve seen live was the Archos PMA, which the Trolltech folks demoed for me a few years ago at LinuxWorld. Nice piece of equipment; not iPhone nice, but well done.

Q: What’s in this for Nokia? What are they buying?
A: Among other benefits cited, the release page says that “the acquisition of Trolltech will enable Nokia to accelerate the cross-platform software strategy for mobile devices and desktop applications, and to develop its Internet services business.” The latter I’m not really buying, but the former seems like something Trolltech can help with. Seeing as they develop a cross-platform UI framework and all. But that may just be the start.

Q: What do you mean?
A: Well, like one of the other folks in #redmonk, my initial thoughts post-acquisition ran back to Nokia’s iPhone clone. That seems like exactly the kind of project that the Qt and Qtopia folks – who have a good reputation for UI look and feel if not always usability – could help with. More specifically, speculation over on LWN is that Trolltech may have been acquired to help evolve the Symbian platform. Given that my last experience with a Nokia Symbian device – an N75 – was unpleasant at best, I’d agree that Trolltech could play a role there.

Q: What does this mean for the various related open source projects?
A: Well, it varies pretty widely. It’s a definite shot in the arm for Qt/Qtopia, and KDE – in my view anyhow, though I understand the objections to it – also stands to benefit, if less directly. It’s not great news for GTK or GNOME, though hardly a disaster; the GNOME project most directly impacted is the aforementioned GNOME Mobile and Embedded folks. Qt and Qtopia in my view just became much more formidable competition, given Nokia’s marketshare and shipping volume, in a world that had already been complicated by the introduction of the iPhone and the announcement of Android. Still, this could present new opportunities for the project; it’s unlikely that Motorola, for example, is blissfully happy about having a framework they rely on owned by a direct competitor. Might it be worth a conversation with the GMAE folks?

Q: Why Qt, why now? I thought Nokia was a GTK shop.
A: Frankly, so did I. One of Nokia’s most notable open source efforts is the Maemo project that underlies it’s N-series tablet offerings, including the Nokia 800 and the Nokia 810. My understanding of the UI framework for Maemo was that it was GNOME/GTK based. What the future then holds for Nokia’s commitments to GTK is open to question, then, as far as I’m concerned. LWN member kripkenstein, however, points to this note on the Maemo mailing list which includes the following quote:

Maemo will continue to be based on Gnome
[...] and S40 and S60 will evolve with Qt

Assuming the transcription is correct, then, we’re to believe that Nokia intends to support two separate and competing open source and largely overlapping UI frameworks simultaneously. One for phones and another for genre transcending devices like the N810.

Which is, of course, possible. But frankly, difficult for me to believe.

Q: What about the future of these products as open source efforts? Can Nokia “take back” the code and hide it?
A: As is MySQL, Qt and Qtopia are both available under the GPL license, meaning that the rights that currently apply to the codebase must apply in perpetuity. Also like MySQL, however, Trolltech owns the entirety of the IP, making possible a dual license as well as closed source products. Personally, I view the possibility of Nokia proceeding with Qt as a closed source project – which would be within their legal rights – as unlikely in the extreme.

To reassure developers, Nokia and Trolltech jointly published an open letter (PDF warning) to the open source community and the KDE project specifically. In this letter, the two companies promise to continue their open source commitments unabated, saying:

We will continue to actively develop Qt and Qtopia. We also want to underline that we will continue to support the open source community by continuing to release these
technologies under the GPL.

While several parties have raised the question of whether Nokia’s commitment to the desktop oriented Qt will wane, in light of the handset makers lack of a presence in that market, it’s my impression that Qt and Qtopia are tied together closely enough that a decommitment from one would necessarily impact the other.

Q: So the existing technologies are going to be open source; what about, as one LWN reader asked, new technologies?
A: There are no guarantees, obviously. If Nokia/Trolltech dramatically broadens the horizons beyond the frameworks the latter has been best known for, they’ll have a decision to make, just like every other producer of software. That said, Nokia is first and foremost a hardware manufacturer. I expect software license revenue – Trolltech included – to be incidental to the big picture. Meaning that open source would presumably receive stronger consideration for the firm than it does within, say, the Microsoft Office BU.

Q: What does this mean for the mobile world more generally?
A: Well, more open source involvement at the very least. While Android aims to be an open source foundation for the stack, the Apache licensing will allow for liberal proprietarization of the stack. The two audiences that will be able to do that with the Trolltech technologies, based on the current licensing, will be Nokia and its dual licensees. BusinessWeek reads the deal as a blow to Android, and while I think it’s a mistake to conflate as the author does the framework with the kernel, it is probably true that some would-be Android developers will stick with Nokia. Particularly those in the geographies where the handset maker is strongest; i.e. not the US.

A separate BusinessWeek piece expands on that idea, contending that Nokia is fending off Apple and potentially dealing Motorola a hammer stroke.

To those arguments, I say: we’ll see. I’m not sure I buy into the idea that a cross-platform UI framework – however important – is the primary separation between Apple and Nokia’s respective strategies, and as for Motorola, there are other options as previously mentioned.

Still, it should further competition and thus innovation, so the outlook for the mobile world generally is better, I think.

Q: Anything else to add?
A: That’s all I have for now. As always, feel free to drop in questions and we’ll try and answer them or get them answered.

Categories: M&A Announcements, Mobile, Open Source.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • http://www.redmonk.com/jgovernor James Governor

    and you think *I* should be covering mobile? ;-)

  • http://robilad.livejournal.com/ Dalibor Topic

    There is another important thing: Qt is a joy to write code for, and has those weird Java bindings (Jambi) for people who care about writing their code in Java, and using Qt underneath. As Nokia will likely use Qtopia to replace Open C on Symbian, that potentially means write code in Java on any Qt-supported desktop platform (win32/os x/unix), and have it run fast on Nokia’s phones without hassle.

    Basically, it’s Google’s Android strategy, only executed well, as Nokia is able to pull an existing, huge ecosystem onto their phones, rather than having to build up their own from scratch, as Google has to.
    And since Nokia does not desperately *have* to use a VM, it can equally well keep Qtopia exposed as a native API as well as the Java bindings on top of it, allowing existing code to be ‘ported’ over easily, while allowing new code to be deployed without cross-compilation.

    Add to that that Qt for Windows Mobile should be shipping this year, and you have a very good reason for Nokia to own the sole cross-platform mobile application technology: write to Qt, run fast on the majority of phones & mobile devices, getting features Google has to integrate into Android themselves, like WebKit, for free.

  • http://robilad.livejournal.com/ Dalibor Topic

    Ah, crap, the openid failure ate my comment.

  • http://www.ipc.com Thomas Downing

    TrollTech and Qt have a presence in telephony areas other than cell phones. It was used as the GUI framework for IPC’s IQ/MAX Turret – the best selling turret made to date.

    http://www.ipc.com/meetmax

  • Bill de hOra

    “not iPhone nice”

    Webkit (iPhone. Android) is forked from KDE/KHTML.

    I’m not sure, but I think webkit just became the de facto mobile browser.

  • James

    Bill: apparently Skyfire is based on Mozilla. Plus maemo is defaulting to the Mozilla-based microB. Which is not to say WebKit isn’t gaining share, but there’s no clear winner in the embedded space (Opera still runs on many devices, including the Wii).

  • http://perkypants.org/ Jeff Waugh

    Albeit having only had a few days to digest this (and it hit the press just as linux.conf.au started!), I’m coming to the opinion that this turns out to be a good thing for GNOME, both on the desktop and mobile. We’ll have to chat. :-)

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