Nokia, buy Riverbank Computing

Early last year, Nokia acquired Trolltech $153M, and there was much worry about Qt, the great GUI toolkit. The fear was Nokia would focus only on mobile devices, and cut off Qt’s open source version. In an incredibly smart move (and I have to say one I didn’t see coming), Nokia just announced it’s making Qt available under LGPL.

Think about how this would have sounded 20 years ago: Big company pays 150 mil for small company, renounces said small company’s major revenue stream by giving its product away. Rest assured that Nokia will lose Qt licensees. But as they correctly calculated, it does not matter. If Nokia wants to fight Android and the iPhone, they’d better have a decent software platform, and it better be free. $150M is chump change for them: Nokia’s market cap is around $53 billion.

A more interesting problem (for us involved with the VisTrails project, at least) is what happens with PyQt, the incredibly well-designed Python bindings for Qt. PyQt is developed by Riverbank Computing, which is really a synonym for “Phil Thompson’s one-man show”. If you pay for Qt, buying PyQt for everyone essentially costs you every sixth Qt license, which is not very much at all. But now that Qt is LGPL, what is Phil to do?

Well, he can’t really make PyQt LGPL, as he’d just sink his company. But you could argue that he can’t not make it LGPL either. For once, PyQt would be the only commercial barrier for writing commercial Python software with Qt, and I have a feeling that people would actively try to find a way around that. More importantly, with Qt being LGPL and no Python bindings to go with that, it’d be just a matter of time until someone else starts an LGPL PyQt clone. But it’s essentially impossible that any new effort will be as good as PyQt is. So, there will be fragmentation of the community and a big waste of development effort. Crucially, this outcome is bad for Nokia. If Phil sticks around by himself, chances are Nokia loses money.

So for Nokia to keep around a great set Python bindings for Qt, they just have to ensure Riverbank wants to make PyQt LGPL. And the easiest way is simply to buy the company, hire Phil Thompson, and make him PyQt dictator for life. So, Phil, it’s time to buy a new suit!

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3 responses to “Nokia, buy Riverbank Computing

  1. How is it that you figure Nokia is going to lose money on PyQt remaining commercial/GPL? I agree it will reduce adoption rates somewhat, but I don’t see a monetary reason for them to purchase Riverbank.

    I have to say I still don’t completely understand why Nokia has done this.

    • carlosscheidegger

      It’s in Nokia’s best financial interest to make sure there still exists a good set of bindings for PyQt. It’s not that they will lose money directly, it’s that if PyQt goes away, they lose support for a popular language, and the developer community that comes with it. PyQt in cell phones is worth more than what Riverbank would cost.

  2. I don’t think the price is a huge problem.

    If I wanted to write some commercial PyQt software (as an independent vendor), the current cost of Qt itself would be prohibitive. It’s too hard to justify the Windows-only license over native Windows widgets with IronPython and .NET, and the multi-platform license is just too expensive without a fat bankroll.

    PyQt, by comparison, isn’t so bad — as far as business startup costs go, it’s pretty cheap.

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