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Developers twitchy as wait for Symbian^3 goes on and on

Nokia promises improvements with N8, but new OS will take time to gain momentum

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Nokia's forthcoming N8 smartphone will certainly have market leading hardware specs, but the real challenge for the firm is to convince developers of its software credentials.

It is promising improved developer tools, Ovi Store experience and user experience for the N8, drawing on the new open source release of Symbian. But until the product is in developers' hands for real, they are in wait-and-see mode, and this threatens to erode the market lead of the existing Symbian platforms.

Countering a much quoted analysis by BusinessWeek, pointing to the impact of developer uncertainty on Symbian momentum, Nokia's VP of products and media, George Linardos, told Bloomberg there would be a "big improvement in terms of the Ovi Store experience with the introduction of the N8", expected to be the first commercial handset running Symbian^3 (though Samsung may pip it to the post). However, he agreed that creating the perfect store and developer experience was a work in progress - "I look at this as the first innings of a very, very long game," he said.

This is a realistic view - Symbian^3 is not just an update but a complete reworking of the OS, and both the standard and Nokia's implementation of it will promise dramatic improvements in user interfaces, apps performance, cross-platform tools and so on. But, for smaller developers in particular, mature systems come with lower risk and greater familiarity than the most advanced new ones, and changing a well established platform, while necessary, is risky.

iPhone is now mature and proven, and Apple has been careful to tinker with the OS rather than dramatically enhance it. Android, after two years of uncertainty and gradual evolution, remains fluid but is gaining confidence and a strong device base. Symbian^3 will take at least a year to achieve the same position, and much of the success of its efforts will rely on how well Nokia, its leading supporter, implements it (Android's breakthrough came with attractive vendor implementations like HTC Sense, not the vanilla Google/OHA platform).

Gartner analyst Nick Jones told Bloomberg: "We may have to wait until Symbian^4 to get a really compelling Symbian device, so that the ecosystem may not start to achieve its full potential until 2011."

The long wait for the upgraded platform, combined with uncertainty about what that will deliver, have dented interest in both Symbian and Windows Mobile. Symbian's smartphone market share was 44.3% in the first quarter, the first time it has gone below 45%, and down from almost 49% a year earlier. Of course, this is a massive market lead on which to build, but it will be important for Symbian^3 to score some high profile points in its first quarter - attracting the kind of visible early adopters, among advanced end users and developers, that instilled confidence in Android and iPhone even in their early months, when their actual market share was tiny.

Copyright © 2010, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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