Symbian squares up to mobile rivals

Summary:The company's chief executive explains how Symbian plans to keep up with rising competition from the likes of Apple, Microsoft and RIM

Nigel Clifford is chief executive of mobile OS maker Symbian, the market leader in the smartphone operating-system space.

The 49-year-old chief executive, a Cambridge University graduate who also has an MBA from Strathclyde University, joined Symbian from another telecoms software business — Tertio Telecoms — and has also worked at Cable and Wireless, heading up its UK operations, and at BT where he held a variety of management roles.

Earlier this year — and some three years after Clifford joined Symbian as chief executive — Symbian announced it would be going open source, shifting from a proprietary business model to one that offers access to its millions of lines of code to developers everywhere via the Symbian Foundation. Or, as Clifford puts it: "At the heart of [this decision] is a belief that the power of many is better than the power of the few and that by making ourselves open we then have the opportunity to use millions of brains who perhaps previously were held a little bit distant from us."

ZDNet.co.uk's sister site, silicon.com, caught up with Clifford recently in his loft-style office at the company's Southwark HQ in London to discuss the finer points of going open source; the challenges posed by mobile newcomers such as Apple and Google; how to build 'usability' into an OS; and how a humble mobile app helped him best his two teenage boys in a triathlon.

Rising competition
Symbian's history is a long one, for the tech industry. The company was established a decade ago by Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia and Psion, and by 2006 there were 100 million Symbian phones in the market — a figure that has more than doubled two years later as the smartphone market continues to grow year-on-year.

Today the company remains undisputed market leader in the smartphone space, largely owing to the strength of Nokia — the world's number-one handset vendor — which uses the Symbian OS. But Symbian knows the mobile game is changing; as the chief executive writes on the company website: "Our market today is very different from the one we've been operating in successfully in the past 10 years. We're clear that powerful competitors are vying for this space."

And while these "powerful competitors" are not name-checked on Symbian's site, they are very familiar brand names indeed — Apple, BlackBerry, Google, Microsoft — all encroaching on its territory.

According to analyst house Gartner, Symbian claimed well over half (57.1 percent) of the smartphone OS market in Q2 2008, followed a distant second by BlackBerry-maker RIM (17.4 percent), after which comes Microsoft's Windows Mobile OS with 12 percent. However, the statistics also show Symbian's lead is shrinking. Back in Q2 2007 Gartner gave Symbian 65.6 percent market share — which means the company has seen a not inconsiderable 8.5 percentage point drop in market share in a year. And rival platforms continue to cut bigger slices of the pie — most notably BlackBerry-maker RIM that has seen an 8.5 percentage point increase over the same period.

Asked why the company's growth has been slowing, Clifford takes a 'glass half full' perspective. "The smartphone is still the fastest growing marketplace in mobile… and we're still market leader there, want to remain market leader — 60 percent of phones sold in this sector in the last 12 months had Symbian inside them," he begins.

But he concedes there have been "regional differences" — or "particular patterns in different marketplaces". He points, by way of example, to government/regulator intervention in the Japanese market that has removed generous subsidies for high-end phones, meaning dramatic price rises for consumers and a knock on effect for mobile companies (something that has also affected mobile-maker Sony Ericsson).

"Everyone who's got a strong market position in Japan has seen growth slow," he says philosophically. "Conversely we've seen in other markets significant growth — in the US there's been significant growth and we would like to see more market share in the US. So some of this is very regional."

Beyond Nokia
Misbehaving markets aside, Clifford's still resolutely upbeat about what tomorrow will bring Symbian: "Our growth depends on shipping lots of new products and what we've got now is a pipeline of 90 products — the biggest pipeline we've ever had — which are waiting to go out through the door."

If Symbian has historically been bound up with the fate of Nokia, part of the unspoken rational behind the creation of the Symbian Foundation is to go beyond Nokia, which is also facing…

Topics: IT Employment

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