A new version of the Symbian mobile phone operating system is to begin beta testing within the next few weeks.

Symbian^2, the first version of the software since the Symbian Foundation said it planned to go open source, should be ready for release six months after that, so smart phone buyers may see the first devices using the software in the first half of 2010.

The foundation was created when Nokia bought software developer Symbian, with the intention of uniting the underlying Symbian operating system with user interface layers such as S60 or UIQ that had been developed on top of it.

Since December, work has been accelerating, said David Wood, who holds the post of futurist and catalyst at the Symbian Foundation.

Symbian^2 will add more of what we have seen in the latest Symbian devices, including a user interface that can be customised by the users themselves, and more elaborate touch features.

Within a few weeks, the software will be "functionally complete," said Wood: no more features will be added, and changes will only be made based on feedback from phone manufacturers. In Symbian-speak that stage will be followed by a six-month process of "hardening" the software before phones can be produced. The two stages correspond with the release of a beta version and the process of beta-testing at other software companies, although Wood declined to use those terms.

The Symbian Foundation is also working hard on the Product Development Kit (PDK), which phone makers will use when building phones based on the operating system. They can get it today, but it is not as polished as the Foundation would like, according to Wood. Every two weeks a new version of the PDK is to be released, and Wood expects to have a significantly evolved kit in about a month.

Work on both Symbian^2 and the PDK have taken longer than initially thought.

One of the issues has been software in Symbian OS and in the Series60 user interface that wasn't owned by either Symbian or Nokia. Third-party vendors included software in the OS for a fraction of the licence fee, and aren't happy for it to become open source, according to Wood.

The Symbian Foundation has removed these parts of the software, and is either writing something equivalent, reverting to an older implementation, or using an R&D licence so it can be left in the code. But anyone who develops a commercial product will have to pay when it goes on sale. That is the solution has been used to implement Java.

"This is the kind of engineering issue that will come up naturally when open-sourcing a very large software system," said Wood.

The foundation has also seen some of the advantages of the open-source model: Developers have started to download the open-source modules and are reporting bugs, which is what the Foundation had hoped for, Wood said.

"I am hoping that this isn't going to deter the package owners from moving their code quickly into open source. I am hoping they're going to say: 'The good news is that the person who has reported these bugs hasn't just said there is a bug, but also how to fix it,'" said Wood.

So far, less than ten percent of the code has become open source, but that figure is rising all the time, according to Wood. The goal is still for the platform to be open source by June, 2010.

"I'd love to see that happening quicker," he said.

The smart phone market is currently in a state of flux. Apple has rolled out a new iPhone, Microsoft is preparing to release a new version of its mobile operating system and Google's operating system Android, which is also an open source project, is slowly starting to pick up speed.

Wood isn't too worried about their head start. Instead, the growing interest in smart phones will help the Symbian Foundation in the long term, and make buyers more aware of that there are different operating systems to choose between, according to Wood.