Daniel Eran Dilger in San Francisco
Random header image... Refresh for more!

iPhone panic spurs Nokia to dump Symbian on high end

Daniel Eran Dilger

Nokia will abandon the Symbian OS on its high end smartphones and instead roll out new Linux-based devices in a fresh bid to take on the iPhone, according to advanced reports on next week’s Nokia World event in Germany.
.The move, reported by Reuters, casts a shadow on Symbian’s future. Nokia currently sells both low end “feature phones” running its proprietary, embedded Nokia OS and higher-end smartphones based on Symbian.

Until recently, Nokia co-sponsored the development of the Symbian operating system in a partnership with other phone makers including Sony Ericsson and NTT DoCoMo. Particularly since the release of the iPhone, the independent company that maintained Symbian has posted regular declines in licensing revenues.

Last year, facing competitive pressures from RIM and Apple as well as a new threat from Google’s free Android platform, Nokia bought out its partners and announced plans to set up the new Symbian Foundation to steward the development of Symbian as a free open source project in the model of Linux and Android.

Nokia sells the vast majority of Symbian OS phones on the market, and recently signaled efforts to step up its game to make Symbian more competitive with RIM’s BlackBerry in the enterprise by announcing a partnership with Microsoft to deliver Office apps for Symbian.

Origins: Why the iPhone is ARM, and isn’t Symbian

Out of the frying pan, into the fire

Observers noted that Microsoft’s support of Symbian was curious given that the company doesn’t market mobile versions of its Office apps for any other platform apart from its own Windows Mobile. Supporting Symbian certainly won’t help Microsoft move Windows Mobile into Europe and Asia.

On the other hand, a variety of efforts by phone makers to build high end flagship Windows Mobile phones that could compete against the iPhone, including Sony Ericsson’s XPERA X1 and Samsung’s Optima, have been dropped in favor of new Symbian models, such as Sony Ericsson’s Idou and Samsung’s new OptimaHD.

Additionally, with global sales of Windows Mobile phones now falling behind Apple’s iPhone, Microsoft has good reason to find an alternative mobile operating system that will enable it to stay in the smartphone market in some fashion. While Symbian is a competitor, it threatens Microsoft much less than the iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, or other Linux platforms.

Symbian reports slow growth in front of iPhone 3G launch
Canalys: iPhone outsold all Windows Mobile phones in Q2 2009

Symbian: Free as in Craiglist Ad

However, the high profile migrations from Windows Mobile toward Symbian makes Nokia’s own intention to move away from Symbian on the high end even more interesting. The lack of interest by Nokia in its own operating system also casts doubt upon the viability of the Symbian Foundation to deliver a future roadmap for competitors, for free at Nokia’s expense.

The collapse of Symbian, which just a few years ago dominated the smartphone market worldwide with more than 80% market share, would open up half of today’s existing smartphone market to the voracious appetites of Apple and RIM, and could also help pave the way open for Google’s Android platform, which has gained vocal support from Motorola and even HTC, the company that has built 80% of Windows Mobile devices.

The move to dump Symbian is not entirely unexpected for Nokia. One Symbian developer described it as “a very bad and uninspiring OS even from a programmers point of view,” and reported that even Nokia’s high level senior executives privately regarded it as “a piece of [expletive] OS.”

Since 2005, Nokia has developed the Maemo Linux distribution for use in its Internet Tablet devices; the company is widely expected to use the same software in its forthcoming smartphones.

26 comments

1 AvantKore { 08.26.09 at 5:04 pm }

Nokia is panicing. Watching it running all over the place like a headless chicken can be great fun.

The N97 mini, the Booklet, the Office deal, the Maemo Device, the Ovi Store, the Nokia Money… and so much more to come!!!

2 Conrad MacIntyre { 08.26.09 at 5:24 pm }

Two entries in one day, Daniel? To what do we owe the pleasure?

3 Per { 08.26.09 at 5:29 pm }

I think Nokia is making Symbian open source just to kick Microsoft in the nuts on the lower end of the market. Free Symbian crap is better than [insert MS license fee] WinMo crap to those manufacturers who struggle with thin margins.

The only one who could be impressed by Symbian is someone who for some strange reason has only been using old ’50s bakelite telephones until now. Making something open source is sometimes a nicer way to throw something in the trash.

4 stormj { 08.26.09 at 5:47 pm }

Android is the only legitimate competition for iPhone right now because it is an open platform that is cross-platform (WindowsMobile is only illusorily Windows) so that it might be able to attract developers put off by Apple’s app store process. To the extent this new Nokia thing is Linuxy just like Android the same applies… but RIM, Symbian, and WinMob are on their way out.

5 HCE { 08.26.09 at 5:49 pm }

While I agree that Nokia and Symbian are in trouble, I am not too sure that creating phones based on Maemo is some kind of panic move by Nokia. It was fairly obvious that this was coming, sooner or later.

Nokia released the first beta of Maemo in 2005 (long before the iPhone was introduced). They bought TrollTech in January 2008 (just 6 months after the iPhone was introduced). TrollTech’s primary product is the Qt application framework which, at the time, ran on Linux (and Windows and OS X) but not on Symbian. TrollTech also had a version of Qt called Qtopia which was directed primarily at mobile Linux platforms. This suggests that Nokia had Maemo in mind when they made the acquisition. Indeed, at the time of the acquisition, there was a lot of speculation that Nokia was going to dump Symbian and move to Linux – that Nokia tried their best to contain.

It is highly unlikely that Nokia would do all this if Maemo was *just* meant to be a Internet tablet OS. I’m sure they realized that Symbian was getting long in the tooth and that they had to move to a more advanced OS, sooner or later.

Some of Nokia’s other moves – the booklet, the Office deal and the half-assed Ovi store – reek of panic. I don’t think the move to Maemo does. This is IMHO something that they have planned for quite some time.

– HCE

6 John E { 08.26.09 at 7:28 pm }

let’s see if Nokia can explain clearly what it is up to next week at its annual confab before we conclusively trash them.

but right now Nokia is running Windows on its netbook, Linux maybe on new stuff, and Symbian on current stuff. maybe they think they can unify it all in “the cloud” with Ovi. well, they have a ways to go at best – 2011? or they just don’t know where they are going and are throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks.

7 Silencio { 08.26.09 at 7:38 pm }

For more Nokia amusement, read the cover article about them in this month’s Fast Company. Be sure to have a puke bucket sitting at the ready next to your chair as you read of Nokia’s execs jet-setting around the world, meeting up with the major label execs, palling around with Bono and Dave Stewart (whose official consulting title at Nokia is — I kid you not — “Change Agent”), sipping cocktails on Paul Allen’s yacht at Cannes, attempting to create synthetic, multinational videogame/pop stars to power their global marketing brand. It’s like some breathless fantasy from the dot-com era, conspicuously lacking in any kind of recognition as to exactly why the iPhone has been eating into Nokia’s/Symbian’s smartphone marketshare worldwide.

They’re looking like Microsoft at the moment: throwing out a bunch of “me too” products without any overall vision. Maybe they can articulate some sort of cohesive strategy with Maemo, but I’m not holding my breath.

8 cy_starkman { 08.26.09 at 9:52 pm }

S60 is like using GEOS on a C64. Actually nah, that is disrespectful to a venerable old GUI.

What was that DOS manager… File Commander? S60 is like using that.

Time to move on

9 John E { 08.27.09 at 12:59 am }

ok, Dan and everyone else has to give big props to this guy and his post:

http://counternotions.com/2009/08/26/pre-iphone/

also some great comments, esp. the one about some scientific work.

10 jodyfanning { 08.27.09 at 2:06 am }

@John E. Except that link only describes the situation in the US. It isn’t like that anywhere else. Why do you think Nokia has so low market share in the US. Precisely because they wouldn’t bend over and take it from the networks.

11 jodyfanning { 08.27.09 at 2:13 am }

Nokia is pretty agnostic about the platform. They do whatever gives them the best profit and market share.

They have Trolltech and Qt because it gives them a cross-platform toolkit. Why do you think they are spending so much time porting it to Symbian. It makes the platform irrelevant.

12 bartfat { 08.27.09 at 3:00 am }

Yeah, but supporting multiple platforms means that you can’t optimize for any platform. And Nokia doesn’t seem to have any real sense of where it’s heading anyway.. like John E said. Shipping Windows 7 on its forthcoming netbooks? Yeah, that’s TOTALLY going to get them some real profits, just like the PC manufacturers. Whatever happened to them trying to actually innovate and create real products that people wanted, back when they had the N95 for sale? Now, no one talks about the N95 and its successors.. I guess the iPhone has them beat in that area, and they decided to give up rather than try to actually compete by developing a real alternative and sticking to it.

Besides, isn’t Symbian on its way out anyway? No one wants to develop multi-vendor OSes for phones, the diversity of hardware is just ridiculous, and it’s near impossible to support. No wonder they’re dumping it in favor of something else that doesn’t require hardware-agnostic features.

13 John E { 08.27.09 at 3:42 am }

@jodyfanning – the world telco market is a mess. China has its own special rules, Japan is very idiosyncratic, the US is fucked up, etc. etc. no place is “typical,” including Europe and its array of regulations that vary by nation plus the Euro overlay.

Nokia may indeed hope to be all things to all places. the danger is it winds up instead being nothing to nobody.

14 gus2000 { 08.27.09 at 10:01 am }

As a U.S.-based elitist, I imported the fancy feature phones from Nokia that would work on our networks (and I paid dearly for the unlocked versions). I actually enjoyed them alot, except for the part where they were all pieces of crap. Every one I got failed in less than a year, even though I treated them gently due to their cost.

That was all pre-iPhone of course. I just retired my original iPhone that I got on launch day, to keep as a backup. It’s scratched, dropped, dented, and well-used yet as functional as the day I got it.

The US cellular market may be screwy, but that will not save Nokia from itself. Pointing and laughing at someone worse off than you may be comforting but it does not actually improve your circumstances.

15 Tardis { 08.27.09 at 11:07 am }

My first mobile phone, on Japan’s NTT DoCoMo network, was a Nokia. The number was hard-wired to the phone and printed on the box, so I chose a memorable number on a blue phone over a less-memorable number on a gold version.

That was over 10 years ago. Since then, I have changed phones three times, via a Fujitsu phone and Motorola RAZR, and now have an iPhone with the same memorable number transferred from NTT DoCoMo to Softbank. Meanwhile, Nokia gave up selling phones in Japan. They were going to introduce a new luxury version phone in Japan this year but abandoned that too.

The Fujitsu and the Motorola were both running Symbian, but they never really lived up to the promise. The OS was not fully bilingual, so a special version had to be written for Japan and then re-written to allow English-language compatibility, with ensuing problems. Extra apps were available, Java was available, music was available (via iTunes) but getting them to download and actually work on the phones proved impossible.

My experience of getting Linux to work on a PC in both English and Japanese suggests that Nokia will have a hard time getting a truly global version of Linux working on its phones, whereas Apple not only solved these problems many years ago with OS X, they actually created an entirely new text input system for Asian languages for the iPhone, which I can choose alongside the (three) text input systems available on OS X.

There is no indication that Nokia, Palm or even Android will ever come close to matching the Mac OS X iPhone in meeting the Asian market needs that Nokia and Palm both abandoned many years ago. In other words, if those companies are really in competition with Apple’s iPhone, they have already conceded half of the world’s customers to Apple.

16 ShabbaRanks { 08.27.09 at 11:55 am }

It’s a shame what’s happening to Nokia.

I my opinion they used to produce excellent, durable, utilitarian little phones who’s intuitive menu system made them a breeze to use. Then they started making huge smartphones such as the Nokia Communicator and their ordinary phones got so small you had to employ a small child or a dialling wand just to ring anyone.

However, you still wanted one because they just had something about them. Then, slowly, cumulative design errors and the god-awful Symbian became what Nokia was known for. My pre-iPhone handset was a Nokia N95. It was badly designed (headphone jack in the side anyone?), slow (low res movies would take an age to start playing and there was huge lag between pressing a button and getting a response) and confusing. It was still the best phone in the Market though.

Then the iPhone came out and I’ve never looked back. Nokia is long overdue ditching Symbian and creating something more akin to what made them so successful in the first place.

P.S: this is a European view.

17 HCE { 08.27.09 at 11:59 am }

@ Tardis

> There is no indication that Nokia, Palm or even Android will ever come
> close to matching the Mac OS X iPhone in meeting the Asian market
> needs that Nokia and Palm both abandoned many years ago.

Asia is a lot bigger than Japan. Nokia may have abandoned the Japanese market but they are a huge player in Asia overall. As per the Canalys report that Daniel posted about (a couple of posts prior to this one), Nokia has an almost 60 percent share of the Asian smartphone market. Japan is a really quirky market which requires manufacturers to tailor features specifically for that market alone. Hence, in general, Japanese cell phone makers pretty much own the market there – which is probably the reason for Nokia pulling out.

– HCE

18 John E { 08.27.09 at 12:48 pm }

@HCE – yes, but i take Tardis point to be that the iPhone with Apple’s OS X has the power and sophisticated UI needed to adapt successfully to the Japanese market’s particulars – it is selling well there now – whereas Nokia/Symbian was simply not up to the challenge at all.

19 HCE { 08.27.09 at 1:12 pm }

@John E

I agree that the iPhone has a better shot at the Japanese market than other phones. The 3GS has started off quite well – let’s see if the success continues.

One other unrelated thought. After reading a little bit more about Nokia’s Maemo roadmap, I am thinking that the N900 release might be due to some panic on Nokia’s part. As per the roadmap, the next version of Maemo, due at the end of next year, is the one optimized for smartphones. It also uses Qt as its application development framework unlike the current release which is GTK-based. The N900 (and other Maemo phones that will be released in the coming year) seem to be something of a stopgap between now and the release of the Qt-based next version of Maemo which is due at the end of 2010 or early 2011. Possibly, Nokia did this as a measure to counter the iPhone until the actual smartphone version of Maemo arrives.

– HCE

20 ChuckO { 08.27.09 at 2:47 pm }

Why does it make sense for Nokia to sell netbooks? Is it because they have cellphone experience and that’s the network these things run on? Do they feel like they need to sell anything that runs on a cellphone network? I’m not being sarcastic, I just don’t get why they want to be in the netbook business. I guess they’re used to making very little per phone so making very little per netbook makes sense?

21 John E { 08.27.09 at 3:39 pm }

i think Nokia sees telco connectivity – instead of wifi – as the wave of the future for mobile computing. where just like smartphones, pricey data plans subsidize the up front purchase price of the computer. they might be right. so you buy a netbook for $199 plus a $35 a month two year data plan. they don’t want to be left out of that new market. but the Windows tax is a problem there.

meanwhile their new Linux N900 announced today clearly signals their future 2nd gen smartphone strategy. it won’t be Symbian. the N97 was a weak holding tactic it turns out. feel bad for anyone who bought it. but when will the N900 go on sale? is an SDK ready? have to wait to hear next week.

really, backing up, it is Ovi that will determine the success or failure of Nokia in this new era. without a good Ovi ecosystem to tie all the Nokia products together for user convenience and free Nokia from dependence/enslavement on dozens of telcos for user services, they will just become a perpetual also-ran with uncoordinated products, which is what is happening today to dying Sony-Erriccson.

but creating such a solid ecosystem is really hard. Apple’s iTunes/MobileMe/OS integration has been developing over almost a decade now. Google’s cloud almost as long. MS Live/Azure/whatever is still a mess after an even longer period of efforts. Ovi is still in start up mode, while everyone already has all their media configured in some other program (so why switch?). and trying to merge 3 different product OS’s within it services package is bound to be complex. but Nokia does have a strong base in Europe to work with, which connects language-wise with Latin America and a lot of Africa too. So Ovi might become the leader in those regions one day. but Asia and the US? very unlikely.

22 ChuckO { 08.27.09 at 5:55 pm }

I don’t know, the regions that buy Nokia seem like they buy Nokia because Nokia would love to sell them a cheap phone. It’s hard to imagine that as (hopefully) those regions get more buying power they won’t just follow what Asia and America do. Who knows what would happen right now if Apple had any interest in flooding those areas with cheap Apple branded phones. Apple could probably cause Nokia a lot of grief by pursuing a Microsoft-esque strategy like that. Nokia might have a hard time funding a smart phone strategy.

23 Linux to Fill the Gap Left by Exploding iPhones and Overweight Sub-notebooks | Boycott Novell { 08.28.09 at 5:25 am }

[...] the Microsoft press wrote about it positively, whereas Apple enthusiasts were fixated on the iPhone impact. Nokia will abandon the Symbian OS on its high end smartphones and instead roll out new Linux-based [...]

24 Neil Anderson { 08.28.09 at 12:01 pm }

The only competitor to the iPhone is a new iPhone.

25 David Dennis { 08.28.09 at 8:43 pm }

When I travelled to the Philippines, I noticed people using their cellphones as status symbols. The available phones were generally more sophisticated than what was available on the US market at the time (February 2006). A friend of mine had a Nokia 6600 series and I think it cost her about US$300, which is a fortune in a country where a typical upper middle class income is around $1,000 a month.

So don’t think people in Third World countries don’t want sophisticated phones. A friend of mine over there has an iPhone 3G she bought used from someone upgrading to a 3Gs. And when the iPhone first came out, people were getting $1,000+ for unlocked phones for a while.

Unfortunately, iPhone plans in the Philippines are really terrible, and overall Internet connectivity is poor. But customer sophistication, at least in the more affluent areas, is there.

D

26 Why Nokia is suing Apple over iPhone GSM/UMTS patents — RoughlyDrafted Magazine { 10.23.09 at 2:32 pm }

[...] Readers Write About Symbian, OS X and the iPhone iPhone panic spurs Nokia to dump Symbian on high end [...]

You must log in to post a comment.