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Symbian Titanic heading for iceberg

Nokia deserves much of the blame

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In a commentary piece titled Is Symbian re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?, Gartner analyst Nick Jones provides a stinging analysis of the current Symbian state of play, admonishing the less than impressive Symbian^3 user interface and misguided roadmap for the mobile operating system's evolution. He concludes that "the Symbian Foundation is just re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and ignoring the Android iceberg ahead".

In Jones' opinion, the Symbian^3 user interface is substandard and simply not competitive with Apple and Android. He goes so far as to warn that if the Symbian Foundation doesn't address the UI shortfalls with Symbian^4, and do so by 2011, the game may be up for the platform. As Jones puts it: "The S4 UI is a 'bet the platform' project."

In other words, if it doesn't dazzle the market, it could be curtains for the OS which still commands the largest smartphone market share. It wasn't that long ago when years of missteps placed Palm in a similar 'bet the farm' situation, gambling everything on the Palm Pre handset and new webOS - a bet that Palm decidedly lost.

Part of the problem which Jones has identified is that the Symbian Foundation's roadmap is stuffed full of non-essential features which application developers aren't asking for and which will go unappreciated by consumers.

"What I see is too much effort on stuff that really doesn't matter. For example: Audio policy packages for Symbian, Wi-Fi direct, support for an 'open cloud manifesto', an accredited Symbian developer program for China, better multitasking, multiple personalised home screens, HDMI connection to external TVs, better web runtime support, better internal architecture and so on."

Jones' critique goes to the heart of the differences in cultures behind the three smartphone operating systems which dominate the newswires - Android, iOS and Symbian. While Google's and Apple's approaches have been to create an application environment based around a rich UI, achieving this with Symbian has required some mammoth re-engineering. This isn't surprising considering Symbian's pedigree.

As a Nokia led initiative, the priority was to use Symbian to help sell more Nokia devices by exploiting the scale economics of leveraging a single OS across a wide range of handset models. This fuelled Nokia's continued success by maintaining its high margins and supporting differentiated devices. In this context, it's understandable that the Symbian roadmap would be skewed towards feature support, aligned with that of Nokia's phone hardware.

But fast forward to 2010 and the disruption which iOS and Android have created for Symbian cannot be overstated. These competing platforms offer crisp UI experiences and have spawned an entire mobile application industry, delivering a livelihood to thousands of developers worldwide. The UI has not been an area which Nokia has traditionally paid attention and since its birth Symbian has been notorious for its unfriendly developer tools. It's unsurprising that Symbian in now playing catch-up.

It is true that Nokia has open-sourced Symbian and spun it out into a separate entity, the Symbian Foundation, which has its own staff, leadership team, over 150 corporate members and a governing board. However, Nokia is still very much in the driving seat and much the S4 development is taking place within the Finnish giant. If Symbian does fail, Nokia will have to accept a large part of the blame.

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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