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So what now for Symbian?

Foundation Chieftain steps down

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It's a little heartbreaking for anyone who knows Symbian - or anyone who appreciates good system design - to see its predicament today. It's a bit like gradually watching a divine beauty turn into a neglected and unloved hag in middle age. Through lack of care and attention, Nokia has let those good looks go to waste.

Now Lee Williams, chief executive of the Symbian Foundation, has stepped down for "personal reasons", with the Foundation's operations guy Tim Holbrow replacing him with immediate effect.

It's the latest in a series of departures from Nokia or projects critical to Nokia's success. Two weeks ago the lead of Nokia's Meego operating system Ari Jaaksi departed, also for personal reasons, and has been snapped up by HP. These won't be the last. Nokia is the biggest sponsor and backer of Symbian.

With the benefit of hindsight, we're all geniuses. But it's fair to say that with the benefit of hindsight the Foundation has failed in most of its objectives.

Nokia bought out Symbian and all its developers 30 months ago, and is the stakeholder with the largest investment in the system over ten years, and the greatest strategic interest in its development. Yet Nokia also wanted Symbian to be an open, industry-owned venture - that was the founding principle of the organisation as Psion sought to make its Epoc OS an industry standard in 1998*.

These tensions were never successfully resolved when Symbian was an independent, jointly owned limited company, and became harder after the buy-out, we can now see. So Nokia acquired the code, then created an independent administrative body to continue the work of licensing, with the seven million lines of code becoming open source.

The Foundation had three kinds of licensees. There was Nokia itself, which undertook practically all of the development. There were the rival OEMs such as Samsung and Sony Ericsson, and then there were Japanese - Fujitsu and Sharp - who used it to create closed devices.

But the legal issues involved in open-sourcing the code proved incredibly complicated and had been underestimated by Nokia. Just as Symbian's licensees needed accelerated development to combat the competitive threat of Apple and Android, the venture was stalled for two years. A Lost Weekend ensued. One by one, the stakeholders pulled out.

First Motorola withdrew, canning a range of multimedia smartphones. Then the UIQ touch UI was canned, and finally Sony Ericsson and Samsung switched their focus to Android. Aside from Nokia, the only remaining manufacturer on the Symbian board, as Rafe Blandford points out in this succinct summary at All About Symbian, is Fujitsu as a shareholder. An "industry standard" without "industry support" is a bit like a log falling in a forest.

Using the N8 phone today it's clear to see why Sony Ericsson and Samsung looked at Symbian^3 and ignored it - the hardware is superb but the UI feels antiquated compared to Android, and the user experience issues haven't been resolved. Android supports a wider range of hardware, feels much slicker and looks more modern, and most crucially, has the factor of momentum.

Yet Symbian provides - and here's our starlet analogy - the most resource efficient and reliable operating system for phone manufacturers. It has years of useful life left in it. And if the User Experience had been maintained, few would doubt Symbian would still be challenging Android - it has the technical chops to compete so well.

Nokia still needs Symbian for its midrange handsets if nothing else. The question facing Elop is whether anybody else needs Symbian too. It may now be cheaper to take it in house, and perhaps even closed source, with compensation to the many IP stakeholders who've contributed over the years. If Symbian^4 fails to find new markets, or fails to win over the manufacturers who've defected to Android, it may as well regain control. ®

*Gawd. Is it really that long ago?

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