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

…the challenge of more and more determined rivals, to bring new users to — and perhaps even create new uses for — the Symbian software platform. Even if, in the short term at least, this means getting closer to its Finnish partner as Nokia buys up all Symbian shares and then bequeaths its code to the Foundation.

"I can just speak for Symbian [rather than the Symbian Foundation as a whole] but probably over the last 18 months or so we've been thinking very hard about how we engage with developers," Clifford explains. "How we engage with partners, how we get more people using the code. And also how we release the opportunity that's out there — we've got 225 million phones out there running Symbian. That's a huge opportunity for a developer — if they could get everyone who's taken an app [to] pay a pound then all of a sudden they become a rich person."

Under the current model, Symbian charges a royalty for use of its software and requires its partners to sign up to a licence agreement. It is this business model which will be swept away by the Symbian Foundation, thereby removing a hurdle preventing more developers from using Symbian software, according to Clifford.

He says: "[The royalty business model] was kind of a barrier which in the case of the partner was probably not financial, it was just overhead. So if you were a hobbyist or a small part of an R&D team just getting to the starting point of having the code in your hands was an effort. And the one thing that we don't want to do is put effort and barriers in the way. So that was one of the reasons — let's get these hurdles flattened and allow people to experiment."

The Foundation will also resolve another barrier as it will unify all the different flavours of the Symbian OS into one platform. "[Previously] developers could have been put off by the fact that even though [Symbian] was a very large marketplace there were these elements of overhead of writing for multiple UIs [Symbian OS, S60, UIQ, MOAP]," he explains. "Every time you put a hurdle in the way then that's another bump, which means [a developer will say] well, maybe I don't want to go there."

The company claims to have notched up an estimated four million developers in its 10 years of operating. And Clifford believes the Symbian Foundation will be able to hold its own in the competition for developer mindshare, even taking into account Apple's faithful and Google's brand clout. "This [Symbian] is where the volume is, and this is where you will get the biggest population across the world using your product... So would you rather have a very broad marketplace or a very narrow marketplace?" he points out.

Asked whether going open source is the best strategy to survive in an increasingly crowded marketplace, Clifford is unequivocal: "Yes. We obviously think so. And the reason being that for most of our partners the OS isn't what they specialise in or make their money from. It is a really important ingredient… and it's the connection point with the developer world.

"So if you put that to one side and then think, 'what does the consumer want?', they want very innovative products created to high quality using the best ingredients. So for us to keep an ingredient on the top shelf or locked away seems counter to what the consumer's actually wanting."

Beyond the mobile
Freed by the Foundation, the chief executive sees no reason why Symbian software might not end up being applied to non-mobile hardware, such as a set-top box, say, or an e-book reader, camera or navigation device.

"That's one of the really exciting things — now there isn't a point of control or a point of 'we will only allow Symbian to be used here'," he says. "We are saying it can be used anywhere that is decent, legal and truthful. It should be available for that experimentation, so you could have someone who's looking at putting together components for a unique product offering or service offering and we just become one of those components.

"You could see developers saying, 'Well I know this [Symbian software] works with cameras because they're on phones, so why don't I take this and then I'm going to come up with a whole new camera concept using this mobile OS'; or, 'I know it works with navigation — because a third of our products had navigation on last year — so I can be confident and take this fragment and go and play with this in a navigation context'. So it's interesting that the output now becomes two ways."

But of course the Symbian Foundation is also all about putting pressure on the competition.

"I imagine that there are quite a lot of strategy teams [in rival companies such as Google and Microsoft] at the moment putting their heads together on this and working out what this move means for them and whether this is an inevitable transition in the industry," says Clifford, adding: "Whenever something changes in the competitive world it puts pressure around that world to respond react anticipate the next move. So people will be feeling destabilised by what's happened, I'm sure."

The Foundation will consist of a board of 10 people — drawn from the founder members (AT&T, LG, Motorola, NTT DoCoMo, Nokia, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, STMicroelectronics, Texas Instruments, Vodafone) — as well as an overall leader (yet to be appointed). It will also have a number…

Topics: Tech & Work

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