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The Beast must buy? Fear and loathing in the Symbian shareholdings

Or not, because they all love one another. Really.

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When is 51 per cent not a majority? At the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes this week Symbian CEO David Levin strove manfully to convince the world that when it comes to his company, the number is in fact 70 per cent. He is of course absolutely correct from a Symbian corporate governance point of view, but the exercise is nevertheless futile; the world is already well on the way to being convinced that Symbian will, or perhaps has, become a Nokia subsidiary, and no amount of arguing is going to get that particular genie back into the bottle.

Here, however, is the case as made by Mr Levin. Although Nokia has proposed to buy Psion's stake in Symbian, that is not yet a done deal, and it is at least conceivable that this particular deal might not in the end be done. The other shareholders in Symbian have pre-emption rights which they could choose to exercise, and this could therefore result in Psion's stake going several ways, resulting in a company in which Nokia did not hold the majority stake. Levin says some interesting things here, interpreting recent Nokia statements as being too all intents and purposes "an open invitation" to other shareholders to participate. "They don't have to show their hands yet," he says, "and I wouldn't expect them to do so yet."

What, then, Mr Levin, are you doing saying so in front of a hall full of journalists and analysts? One might almost imagine you were setting the press pack on the rest of the shareholders in order to goad them into putting their money on the table. But on the other hand, Levin can't have any particular axe to grind here, because it makes absolutely no difference to Symbian's ongoing operations and day-to-day management whether or not Nokia has a majority. So he says.

From a governance point of view the "control point" for Symbian is 70 per cent, which to put it rather more bluntly than Levin puts it, is the point at which Nokia could do whatever it damn well liked with Symbian. Levin points out that last year Psion's additional shares acquired from Motorola gave the company 31 per cent, i.e. "it gave them a control point".

One does wonder what it was that meant Psion at that time felt the need for a control point, given that it's all been so wonderful in the garden. Logically, one wants a control point in order to stop other people ganging up on you and forcing you to do something you don't want to do, right? So did it help Psion achieve its goals, and was selling out a goal? And one also wonders why Levin feels moved to share this with us.

It really does look like it might be a harder world in there than Levin is claiming. The final result of a Nokia buy, some form of redistribution or something else, isn't likely to come until May or June, and as Levin claims it makes no operational difference one way or the other, one must simply banish all suspicions that he has a preferred outcome, or even (good heavens, how could you think such a thing?) that he is attempting to engineer a preferred outcome.

Externally, the proposed deal has already had its impact. Symbian's rivals have been tagging the company as Nokia's poodle for a couple of years now, and the deal is being widely seen as confirmation. Levin can argue till the cows come home that it's 70 per cent that's magic, but the world in general views 50 per cent as quite magic enough, and no matter how right he is here, Levin is, frankly, pushing water uphill. And even if the actual outcome was a more balanced, non Nokia-heavy Symbian, the damage has already been done. People believe that Symbian is becoming a Nokia subsidiary already, and it will be difficult to make them unbelieve that. ®

Related stories

Nokia bags Psion's Symbian stake
Nokia - dooming Psion's legacy to obscurity?
Symbian minorites to block Nokia sale

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