Symbian isn’t dead (yet)

[By Nick Jones]

For some reason there seems to be a “Symbian is dead” meme floating around at the moment. Discussions with some of the infected victims suggest that it’s related to a misunderstanding of Nokia’s Symbian roadmap and the respective roles of Symbian and Maemo in Nokia’s strategy.

Firstly, Nokia isn’t dumping Symbian. Despite all its weaknesses Symbian had over 40% smartphone market share in the first quarter of 2010. It’s the dominant platform with more than twice the share of its nearest smartphone competitor, which is BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion.

It’s strange that the top two smartphone platforms are leaders despite the fact they look dated and don’t have a great user experience or app store — though professional observers like myself value the user experience highly, there’s a lot of inertia in this market and buyers seem to prefer a familiar if average experience to an excellent but novel experience. Maybe I’ll analyse that slightly depressing thought another day, because if I get sidetracked into user experiences I’ll never finish talking about Symbian.

Despite Symbian’s open-source metamorphosis, Nokia still dominates Symbian; few other manufacturers have adopted it, probably because competing with Nokia doesn’t look like an attractive strategy. So whatever Nokia does with Symbian defines Symbian’s future.

So what are Nokia’s plans for Symbian and where does MeeGo fit in the picture? What Nokia have said is that that MeeGo isn’t replacing Symbian. Meego will become the platform for high-end premium handsets that are intended to compete with iPhone. Nokia’s view is that it couldn’t achieve this with Symbian, because Symbian has to be able to support low-end smartphones running on low-cost hardware.

A smartphone can sell for around 150 euros today that means under 100 euros in a year or two. An operating system that can run on hardware retailing for 100 euros can’t compete with Apple.

MeeGo is also a platform that can be stretched to new form factors such as netbooks and tablets; places where Symbian was never designed to go. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Nokia MeeGo tablet at some point in the future. Therefore, based on what Nokia have said so far, I expect to see a few high-end MeeGo devices, while the majority of Nokia’s smartphone portfolio stays on Symbian.

However, even Nokia would admit that the current Symbian user experience is unexciting and too complex. The solution is Symbian version 4, which will appear later in 2010 and ship in devices at the start of 2011, and which will have a whole new user experience. You can see mock-ups on the Symbian developer community website. It looks better than Symbian 3, though not as innovative as I’d hoped. But let’s not read too much into a mock-up.

This means that from 2011 Nokia’s new Symbian devices should have a much more competitive experience. It also means that the success of Symbian 4 is critical to Nokia’s long-term success in the smartphone market, so no pressure there then.

Symbian isn’t dead, though Symbian 3’s days are numbered. Nokia’s stated intention is that MeeGo will run on a few premium devices and that Symbian will remain the mainstay of its smartphone portfolio. So, unless Nokia has a major strategic change of direction, Symbian will survive, and might even prosper.

  • Nick Jones is Gartner vice-president and distinguished analyst. He will be speaking at Gartner’s Symposium event in Cape Town, which takes place from 30 August to 1 September

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  • Leo

    “Symbian isn’t dead, though Symbian 3’s days are numbered”

    I thought Symbian 3 has just been released with N8 being the first, does this mean symbian 3 devices are not worth investing in?

  • Symbian have changed their numbering system (again).

    They had Symbian 1, 2 and 3. Most Nokia phones run 3 which is divided into S30 (make a call and do SMS), S40 (lower end phones – no multitasking but still quite useful) S60 (smartphones) and S80 (who knows?).

    They are now moving into a new version of Symbian (not sure about 4 but certainly its 1 more than 3…) and those are Symbian^1, Symbian^2, Symbian^3 etc. It is aiming toward using QT on the phone. QT is a GUI that runs on Windows, Mac, Linux, etc and now phones – the idea being that software written for one platform can run on many platforms.

    The recent problems with Apple’s phones show that they are a computer company first and phone maker second. Nokia are the opposite – Symbian is really good at managing phone calls and SMS but is less designed for applications. Hopefully as Nokia move into this area, they will still be able to have phones that work for calls.