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Farewell then, Symbian

Epoc's journey: from world-beater to basket case

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The smart in smartphone disappeared

The smartphone wars once devoured a great deal of attention and energy, particularly during the long PR war that took place in the first four barren years - from the birth of the venture exactly ten years ago, to the first mass market consumer handset appearing in 2002. Today, apart from a few gadget fans, nobody really cares any more.

That's because the smartphone segment of the phone market is far smaller and less important than any of us thought at the time. Symbian has powered 200m phones to date, far more than any other high-end OS, but that's built up gradually over seven years. Back in 2000, the predictions were for 400m WIDs (as Symbian called them: Wireless Information Devices) by the mid-2000s.

Even five years ago, it was apparent this was a war in which there would be no winner.

How did "smart" phones lose their luster? While they were bigger, slower and harder to use than phones based on older closed platforms, they didn't offer the value that persuaded most people to put up with the pain and use the extra "smartness". For example, Google Maps runs on any midrange phone today very capably - and like Google itself, it does the job well enough.

But even then it's doubtful that Nokia and Symbian executives would have opted for Exile in Freetard Street, had it not been for two competitive factors. One is the diminishing cost of smartphone OS licenses, which reflects their market value. Google is giving away its smartphone OS, Android. As Bill Ray correctly pointed out today, that makes Android utterly pointless.

There's another factor, too. Symbian's founding CEO, Colly Myers, the father of the OS formerly known as Epoc, used to talk of the "enchantment" factor. Tech wizardry wasn't enough, he said, but the devices had to charm.

It's largely Nokia that must be blamed for failing to make Symbian phones remotely "enchanting". Nokia's UI is cumbersome (Symbian doesn't do UIs); the hardware was for years underclocked, making it slow. And Nokia's legendary marketing has appealed to nerds, outcasts and social freaks - and been guaranteed to confuse everyone.

Today it's the iPhone which has the enchantment factor. How could it not - it comes straight from the Dream Factory. And Apple must now see a clear road ahead for world dominance.

Symbian has done everything its original designers asked of it - a twenty year lifespan is not bad at all. But it's now Apple's business to lose. ®

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