One of the things that struck me most in my conversation with Nokia smartphone chief Jo Harlow yesterday was the idea that Nokia will make Symbian "beautiful". The company's mid-tier offering is target du jour for those who miss kicking Windows Mobile. Cosmetic changes will not be enough.
Nokia says it will gradually upgrade the user experience of Symbian^3, the current version of the platform and, by the company's account, the last version to be a version as such. At the Symbian Exchange & Exposition (SEE2010) in Amsterdam, opinion was divided on whether the decision to axe Symbian^4 was a good idea. It could give Nokia the impetus to move quickly on getting Symbian back in the game. That may not happen. The problem is, Symbian is one of three Nokia platforms; it's the middle child.
At the bottom of the sophistication pile is Series 40, a relatively simple, capable system that sells by the gazillion in the developing world and elsewhere. However, S40's share of the featurephone market could come under threat from Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE, who are pushing out very capable Android handsets at very low prices. Given the choice, Android looks like a good option wherever you are in the world, although Android phones will never quite reach the very low-end market that Nokia owns.
At the top is MeeGo, the market share of which is precisely zero, as no phones have been released yet. The Linux OS might turn out to be the best thing since sliced Edam, in which case Nokia's cleverly smoothed the way with Qt, allowing developers to code apps that will run on both Symbian and MeeGo (more on that later). Or it may prove to be — in market terms — a curiosity like its predecessor Maemo, in which case Nokia can fall back on Symbian.
If MeeGo does succeed, then Symbian is in a very awkward position. Having three platforms is not a desirable situation, although it is not quite as bad as Motorola used to have it with Symbian UIQ plus Motomagx plus Windows Mobile plus Brew plus [continued on p.93]. I also assume Nokia's interdepartmental communications are superior to those reputed to have been in place at pre-2008 Moto. Anyway, being the second-best (but not the cheapest) Nokia platform in a market that already contains iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7, the BlackBerry OS and even webOS, doesn't sound like a good place to be.
So for many developers, who are right now looking at the platform with the biggest smartphone market share but who also note The Rise Of Android, things have got rather worrying. For a start, Qt's magic code bridge is not yet a certainty — after all, the MeeGo mobile UI isn't set in stone yet. So MeeGo is an unknown and the US-centric tech press seems to enjoy laughing at Symbian. Android is attacking Nokia's top and mid-range markets, and threatens to do the same to the bottom end. That's one platform across most market segments.
On the other hand, as Symbian Foundation chief executive Tim Holbrow pointed out to me yesterday, "in a market growing as rapidly as the smartphone market is, the share is going to shift rapidly... If you've got 90 percent [of the market] there's no other way to go than downwards. If the market is growing, of course new entrants will come in."
Holbrow's right, of course: the smartphone market is growing very rapidly indeed, and Nokia's sales are growing along with it (29.5 million Symbian handsets sold in Q3 2010, as opposed to 18.3 million in Q3 2009, according to Gartner). It's just Nokia's share of that particular market that's falling (down from 44.6 percent to 36.6 percent over the same period). Holbrow insists its share of the overall phone market is increasing. "It's a different way of looking at it and it's a more complete picture", he said. But is there not a point at which enough is enough, I asked. "I wouldnt like to see Symbian being outshipped by any other platform — the number one position is a nice position to have — but I dont see that happening for a long time," Holbrow replied.
If Nokia doesn't want Symbian to avoid being upstaged by a rival like Android (which has already overtaken the iPhone), it needs to prove its love for the system. And if Nokia wants to prove its love for Symbian, it needs to change the platform fast and fundamentally. Nokia may have the best industrial design and operator relationships (outside of North America) but right now, Symbian is just not as user-friendly as its rivals. If Nokia is being less than sincere about its support for Symbian, it needs to get MeeGo out there as soon as possible and make it a real contender, and fall back to supporting two platforms.
Symbian can be saved from its decline, but it will take a concerted effort — an effort that, in many ways, Nokia is now in a better position to make . There's life left in the old thing yet, particularly on the inside, and it would be a shame to see it go the way of Windows Mobile. So yes, Jo Harlow and co., please do make Symbian beautiful, and keep it relevant.