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Symbian's Secret History: The battle for the company's soul

How Nokia took charge, and never let go

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Could Symbian have led the industry?

This has been a very different story to write and research than my exploration of Psion. Psion pulled out of a market it created quite dramatically, and recriminations still fly. I interviewed many key executives for these articles and it was hard to find blame being apportioned here. Symbian, by contrast to Psion, has shipped in some 400 million handsets, which is the kind of "failure" many companies would wish to have. But Symbian's role has been one of an important component supplier rather than industry leader, as the team originally envisaged. And since 2001 its fortunes have been tied to one company - Nokia - which last year declared that a Linux-based system rather than Symbian would be its high-end future platform of choice. It was not Nokia, but Apple that eventually created markets for mobile applications and rich content.

“I don’t buy that Symbian is successful today. Most people don’t use it as a smartphone OS and don’t use the smart features,” says East.

Could Symbian have shaken off the grip of its owners? At least one former executive thinks so.

"Very early on we wanted to avoid becoming an industry co-operative - like the Milk Marketing Board. We wanted to avoid becoming a bag of bits. But that's what happened," says Juha Christensen today. If Symbian had been able to IPO, it could have escaped the clutches of its owners - and even challenged Nokia to like it or lump. "Where would it have found another operating system from?" he wonders.

Others think that's fanciful. "Would Nokia ever have helped no name manufacturers bring out a leading edge smartphone?" asks one former executive rhetorically.

"Symbian's management team really didn't understand the tigers it had by their tails," says one leading engineer. "They were woefully inadequate to manage the politics of the companies whose futures they were trying to mold."

But where Symbian pioneered the smartphone field, others seem to have learned valuable lessons.

"Symbian failed because it did licensing first. But if you bring a product to market, then license it to others, those licensees will come,” says Matt Millar. “All they needed to do was work with Nokia, it was world's number one. If you were an OS licensee you'd have given your back teeth to work with Nokia. You just needed to sit down, focus, and create some amazing products with them and then take those and license them to other people.”

Google has learned the lesson with Android, he says.

“Symbian were too socialist, and not capitalist enough."

Nolan says: "It was a huge opportunity, but we never did deliver on the promise. We never could. We did a deal with the devil."

In the past 10 years, only Google has been able to license a smartphone operating system, and it did so in the wake of the iPhone. Android may yet experience the commoditization and fragmentation Symbian wanted to avoid.

Symbian was to remain an important industry force for a decade, but would never fulfill the ambition of being a new kind of company – an industry owned council designing the future.

You can’t blame Symbian for that, East says today – as much as industry inertia.

"That’s as much down to the operators as anyone else. They prevented Nokia from doing an end-to-end solution – that’s what Apple has been able to do. They wanted to do that themselves.”®

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