Symbian, The Secret History: Dark Star

How it almost never set sail

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Dark Star

"One of the hardest things in the world is telling successful people they're wrong," says Randall today, as he recalls the series of events.

In March 1998, with Psion's new system on the market barely six months, David Potter held a meeting of the Psion Group CEOs. All trading companies were present. Potter began the meeting ominously.

“He was waving something around in the air - like Chamberlain after Munich,” one attendee recalls.

“He said, ‘We have a ticket to Microsoft. That's our future'.”

Potter explained that Psion couldn’t compete with Microsoft’s vast resources. Psion would license Windows CE, and Psion Computer would compete on its hardware excellence.

There was disbelief around the table.

Psion’s superior computers owed much to the deep integration of hardware with its own purpose-built operating system and frameworks. When Psion’s engineers tested Windows CE on the same hardware as Psion’s own Epoc, they found the Microsoft software was four times as power hungry.

"There's no way our engineers are going to go to Windows,” piped up one attendee.

Potter was firm. Then impatient.

“When a fucking steamroller is moving your way, you get out of the fucking way,” one executive present recalls hearing.

Psion Software representatives begged for 60 days to find some customers for Epoc.

“David Potter asked us for a budget that showed we're going to lay off everybody we didn’t need,” recalls one. That budget was called Dark Star.

Gretton had rejoined Psion Computer earlier in the year, and a scratch licensing team of Randall, Simon East, Juha Christensen and David Wood set out with a new last-ditch licensing effort, this time with the clock ticking.

“We've got nothing to lose,” was the view.

"It wasn't really an order to wind Psion Software down - it was to dramatically cut the cost. We created a Dark Star budget to cut the cost across the board,” Christensen recalls. “We would become a skeleton operation, and gradually try and claw our way back.”

“But we’d lose a lot of people – and at that point given the size we were, everyone was crucial. If you work in an IP-based business, it’s not like cutting costs at a factory. If you lose assembly line workers you can hire some more.

"If you work in IP-based businesses if you fire people with knowledge in their heads, they're not going to come back. We had to extend it as long as possible. It was a tense time."

The four had to be fearless. Christensen had been moonlighting for an MBA at the time, and had studied dynamic modelling. He proposed an industry-owned venture.

“I had come up with an idea of a company jointly owned by the industry. I talked to Stephen, then to Colly, then to Psion formally.”

"Desperate times call for desperate invention," he recalls. The drawbacks to the plan were obvious. Gretton recalls discussing these with Myers as Epoc was still on the drawing board.

“The phrase we used was, ‘We can’t become a bag of bits'.

“We went to Nokia and told them we think we can spin Psion Software out of Psion. Nokia said 'Let's go to Ericsson'. We wanted to get Motorola involved - but we'll agree everyone's an equal citizen.”

Nokia and Ericsson visited Psion's London HQ on 7 April, 1998. After that, the project became known as Saturn - Nokia and Ericsson's code name.

A month later, on 7 and 8 May, the details were thrashed out. Nokia, Ericsson and Psion – represented by East, Wood and Christensen – met for retreats at Nokia – the small town that gave the Finnish giant its name. Much of Nokia's planning and R&D takes place at nearby Tampere, in a sprawling modernistic facility, but the company retains a Mansion in the old town.

The decision to exclude Motorola from the planning was deliberate.

The positive reception from Nokia and Ericsson – and evident agreement between the three – delighted Potter, who went on to change his mind, and gave the spin-out the full blessing.

"History might have been rewritten."

If the four Psion negotiators – Randall, East, Christensen and Wood, who can all legitimately claim to have ‘created Symbian’ - had failed, then Epoc might have remained a historical curiosity, one of dozens of handheld operating systems.

It was to remain a closely guarded secret among half a dozen executives.

“Bill Gates was screaming”

Talks had moved so rapidly that within the 60-day deadline, Potter brought in financial experts to value the company, and branding experts to give it a name. Goldman Sachs reckoned the spinout was potentially worth £100m – the same figure Randall and his colleagues had arrived at. Insiders say the bankers received £1m for their work.

Finding a name was harder. One suggestion was ‘Edgware’ – a pun on Edgware Road, Psion’s historic base. Another was “Everyware”. On the morning of 24 June 1998, Symbian was unveiled to the world - only 10 Psion employees knew what the day had in store.

Even veteran Mark Gretton, who’d led the licensing effort in his spell at Psion Software, and had moved back to Psion Computers, says he was in the dark.

A date of 17 June was set. But there were two jobs to be done as launch neared.

Calling Bill Gates

The first job was to recruit Motorola, which had been displaced as the global leader in mobile phones after the first-generation (1G) analogue era, but still had a third of the newer GSM market. With the market split three ways, it was only fair to give them equal billing. However, both Nokia and Ericsson were wary of Motorola's bureaucracy, and feared they would derail the talks.

Randall recalls telling Motorola of the shareholder agreement. With the name and structure in place, Motorola was given 48 hours to sign up.

“We said, put your name here, on the same basis as Nokia and Ericsson. Nobody will ever know you weren’t here from the start. They signed it, but hated the fact they were dragged into it,” says Randall.

“They had competing teams in Motorola that had competing Operating Systems. They were also flirting with Microsoft, but didn’t really want to go that way. They didn't like that Nokia and Ericsson were dictating terms. But it was Nokia's foresight that put Symbian together.”

Motorola, which had a major semiconductor operation subsequently spun out as Freescale, insisted on Epoc running on its M*Core embedded processors. It wanted to be on the launch announcement. That put back the launch by a week.

The other task was for the new partners to break the news to Microsoft.

The task of the courtesy call to Bill Gates fell to Nokia’s corporate executive vice president, and later CEO, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo.

“Kallasvuo told us it was the worst call of his career. Gates was like a baby throwing his toys out of his pram. He was screaming.”

“Only 10 people knew about it before. And very few people knew it could have been Dark Star.” ®

Part Two tells the story of the Symbian crucial early years, from 1998 to 2001. You can read it here.

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