Blockbuster book lays out the first 20 years of the Smartphone Wars

Symbian's David Wood bares all. Not for the faint hearted

What Ifs?

The What-Ifs make for some fascinating discussions. What if Symbian had broadened its shareholder base at the turn of the century beyond the major Tier 1 manufacturers? What if IBM and Sun had bought in? What if Symbian had then used this capital to fund UI development, and control the whole puzzle? It would not have been beholden to phone manufacturers, and would look much more like Android today. What if Palm had joined, as it once promised to do, and trailblazed bleeding-edge 3G products into the US market? What if Symbian had produced first rate CDMA support? What if Nokia had done all of its software development in the US? What if Nokia had taken over Symbian completely in 2004, as it wanted to? And later, what if Symbian hadn't been open sourced? Fourteen months after the announcement, only 12 per cent of the source code had actually been freed. The world had moved on. And so had Wood.

(Wood would rejoin the former Symbian consulting team, which had been spun out to Accenture, and work there until March 2013).

Wood also has some acute observations on Nokia's fate. He thinks Stephen Elop blew in with good ideas and a good diagnosis of the Nokia malaise. But he over-estimated the maturity of Windows Phone, then "Osborned" Symbian by effectively declaring it a dead-end. Microsoft then added to Nokia's woes with Apollo, the codename for moving Windows Phone to a new kernel and new middleware, which made the first Lumias dead-ends, too - they couldn't be upgraded to Windows Phone 8. That left Nokia with little to sell in 2012 as the smartphone market continued to explode, and Android became more mature and entrenched.

He also notes that Nokia staff found it convenient, after 2009 and the debacle of the buggy, underpowered N97 flagship, to blame Symbian for its own mistakes.

As with most What-Ifs, the dispassionate Wood is sympathetic to all sides. All decisions have their advantages and their costs, and it isn't clear what they are at the time. He even warns against certain kinds of counter-factual history, speculation where one product substitutes for another. We're reminded that Android, for a while, didn't look like the runaway success it became.

Wood also reminds us that even Nokia joined in trashing Symbian's reputation by the end, as kernel developer Dennis May points out, because much of the blame for the mess can be laid at its own dysfunctional software division.

There's little dispute who won, today: Android will ship in around a billion devices this year. Google backed a clever skunkworks with enormous resources, that were beyond Symbian, and didn't burden them with having to make a profit. And it's worth looking at the cost of victory and the failure of Symbian venture. There are huge costs not just to Google, but to the licensees, who pay more in royalties than they did to Symbian when it was a profit-making company. Billions have been accrued by lawyers in fees. Then there's the long-term cost to the consumer, of helping create a global data processing monopoly, and leverages that to destroy other markets.

Nothing comes for free - we can't always count the cost, though. That's a different kind of "debt". If the doomiest scenario comes about, and one company (Google) accrues most of the value of transactions that take place over the network, then our obsession with shiny things today will have a very high cost for future generations.

It's such a fascinating story there's a scope here for a much shorter "civilian edition" to be "productized" from the source material - I hope one appears.

You can find Smartphones and Beyond as a Kindle format eBook here and the book has a minisite, here. We'll have an interview with the author up shortly.

If you can't wait, read our three-part history of Symbian (Part One) describes the formation of the venture; Part Two: the tense early battles that defined the industry, and former CTO Charles Davies' reflections here). There's also a piece on the "great lost platform", Hildon, that could have saved Nokia a lot of future grief. ®

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