Qt's future: Bigger than Nokia

Nokia may be burning, but Qt is still red-hot

Friday's odd slow-motion train wreck of an announcement from Nokia that they would be entering a strategic partnership with Microsoft to ship Windows Mobile 7 devices prompted a lot of initial dismay from Android fans, who questioned the sanity of Nokia CEO Stephen Elop and his executive team.

After all, pro-Android fans argued, why not go with a proven platform (this despite the fact that European cell phone providers were opposed to such a move)? Moving to Windows Mobile, a platform that has yet to succeed in any market to date, seemed at best a rash decision.

Certainly Elop's employees thought so. Staffers in the Symbian division of the company took advantage of vacation and flex-time to stage a walk out Friday afternoon. And while the world watched those antics, Nokia's stock dropped 14 percent.

Elop shouldn't mind too much, since it was also revealed over the weekend that Elop owns no Nokia stock and happens to be the seventh largest non-institutional holder of Microsoft stock. To be fair, Elop may have been prevented from owning Nokia stock due to Finnish securities regulations.

According to a story in The Register today, Elop was heckled by an audience member during his Mobile World Congress keynote.

"[Elop] countered he had been divesting himself of shares he held in Microsoft when the negotiations had started and, as this was having a material effect on the value of both companies, he had to halt his sales for regulatory reasons. Similarly he was not allowed to buy Nokia shares beyond those granted to him as part of his package. He promised that once the regulatory hurdles were cleared he would sell the rest of his Microsoft holding and buy into Nokia as a statement of faith," the story reported.

And the train wreck continues.

While the flames of Nokia's platform (to borrow a phrase from Elop's leaked company memo last week) seemed to be spreading from the platform out to the rest of the company as financial and mobile pundits tried to make sense of it all, those of us in the open source sector gathered out wits and started asking: what about Qt?

Qt is the development library that Nokia acquired when it purchased Trolltech in 2008. Qt is most famously known in Linux circles as the core library for the KDE/Plasma environments, though it has also been well-integrated into Symbian operating system, which some 200 million devices use.

With Nokia shifting over to WinMo, what would become of Qt? Lead KDE developer Aaron Seigo blogged a wait-and-see missive Friday, but I pressed him a bit on it, because while Seigo's pretty smart, his initial message had the feel of denial. How would Qt operate within Nokia given this new, er, development?

"The most important thing to keep in mind is that Qt is licensed under the LGPL and has a broad ecosystem around it. Regardless of what happens at Nokia, it won't be the end of the world," Seigo replied via e-mail.

"That said, it is far, far too early to say anything conclusive about what it means for Qt and therefore by extension to F/OSS communities like KDE and their projects. We're (KDE) putting together an internal task force to work through these topics with Nokia as well as the broader Qt community and it will need a few weeks to arrive at useful conclusions.

"It's a dynamic situation that we're taking seriously and tracking, but we're also being careful not to jump the gun and either miss opportunities that arise as a result or make poor reactive decisions to challenges as yet not fully understood," he concluded.

The bit about LGPL was, of course, a bit soothing. Even if Nokia burns to the ground (yes, Elop's metaphor persists), Qt will go on. Seigo also notes Nokia is not the only Qt customer in town (his "broad ecosystem").

These comments were echoed Saturday on the official Qt Nokia blog by Daniel Kihlberg, who directly answered the question, what is the future of Qt?

Kihlberg's first bullet point made the most sense:

"The retention of Nokia's 200 million Symbian-users is vital and Nokia has targeted sales of 150 million more Symbian-devices in years to come. To achieve that Nokia needs to continue the modernization of Symbian in Qt--to keep existing consumers engaged and to attract new customers, either upgrading from existing Symbian devices to Qt enabled devices or entirely new to Nokia," Kihlberg wrote.

Kihlberg went on to talk about expansion of the Qt developer base, as well as the customer base for Qt. He made some solid points, though it was a little hard to tell how much was based on realistic expectations, particularly when he touted Nokia's continued (yet rather hollow) interest in MeeGo.

"Nokia also announced it will ship its first MeeGo-related device in 2011, which will rely on the Qt ecosystem – and then will continue with MeeGo as an open source project for future disruption. Nokia can't afford to be behind the next disruption again and Qt can play an important role in making sure it isn't," Kihlberg's blog read. Given that MeeGo was the disruptive future that Nokia moved away from in favor of WinMo, those words don't really resonate confidence.

Because it's open source, Qt is more than just Nokia, and I believe that it will ultimately survive these shenanigans.

In what form? That remains to be seen. Maybe this is Qt's trial by fire.

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