'Android before Android': The long, strange history of Symbian and why it matters for Nokia's future

When Nokia decided to ditch Symbian back in 2011, it effectively signed the OS' death warrant. Is history now poised to repeat itself as Nokia squares up to Android in emerging markets?
Written by Jo Best, Contributor

It may be sliding into obscurity today, but Symbian was for many years in the mid-to-late 2000s a huge success. For most of the last decade, Symbian shifted millions of units (and still does, even now).

And while discussions over Nokia's OS strategy tend to focus on Lumia shipments, it's easy to forget how big, and innovative, Symbian once was.

Back in mid-2007, Nokia and Symbian were on top – Symbian had 65 percent of the smartphone market, while one in every two phones sold worldwide carried the Nokia logo. The pairing was a European success story, with Helsinki-headquartered Nokia making durable, innovative hardware, and London-based Symbian designing software that helped take phones into a world beyond simply making calls and sending texts.

Symbian was arguably the inventor of the smartphone category.

The concept of a large screen, data-centric device which ran apps doesn't seem revolutionary now, but when the Symbian OS-based Ericsson R380 launched in 2000, it really was thinking different.

Symbian: Android before Android?

Today, Android has around three-quarters of the smartphone market, but many of the characteristics that helped make it successful were used by Symbian years before.

Like Android, Symbian – before it became Nokia's pet – was used in handsets by a number of the largest manufacturers, including Samsung. Such an open approach had not really been seen before in mobile, but is now very much the norm.

There was also a large range of third-party software – again, a relatively new phenomenon, but one which has served smartphone makers well ever since. It's pretty much what Apple's success is built on, in fact.

Symbian even considered the options of an app store and extending the OS beyond mobile and into other devices like games consoles, although neither plan eventually went ahead.

Symbian also spotted the importance of touch and large-screen devices, supporting UIs just for such handsets – Series 90 and UIQ for touch (albeit stylus rather than multitouch based), and Series 80 for big-screen handsets. It even picked up on the web browsing trend early, making a WebKit based browser available from 2006 (WebKit is today used by the likes of Apple, as well as Android).

It also used the open source development model that underpins Android, with Nokia in 2008 buying up the shares in Symbian that it didn't already own in order to turn it into the not-for-profit Symbian Foundation.

It was a move that made a lot of sense, but one which failed to pay off. The first version of the open source software was released in 2009, meaning handsets using it were only available from 2010 (by which time, Apple and Android stars had kept rising while Nokia had changed direction on Symbian once again, bringing development back in house and turning the Foundation into a licensing group.)

But despite having ideas that were ahead of its time, Symbian failed to benefit from the first mover advantage of any of them.

Apps and ecosystems

You don't use phones to sell ecosystems, you use ecosystems to sell phones. Symbian had always embraced and encouraged third-party developers, making an attempt to woo them in 2005 through Symbian Signed, an initiative that gave third-party apps the Symbian stamp of approval without the need to get them checked out by a testing house – making the whole process of getting apps into users' hands cheaper, quicker and easier. By the time that the iPhone launched, there were 10,000 apps available for the Symbian platform.

However, "as it turns out, after-market software sales for Symbian smartphones remained low", according to an academic paper authored by former Symbian exec David Wood and San Jose university professor Joel West.

And while 10,000 apps is no mean feat, it did take over seven years for Symbian to reach that milestone, while Apple hit its first 100,000 in a little over a year after releasing the first SDK for iOS.

What aided Apple and hobbled Symbian was the same phenomenon: the app store. Apple made it easier for consumers to buy apps by opening a single storefront, a feat Symbian never managed, although Nokia did open the Ovi store in 2009 to sell Symbian apps – notably behind Apple's iOS, Android and RIM's BlackBerry OS, which got their app stores in 2008. The Ovi brand was discontinued later that year, with the store taking on the Nokia mantle instead. 

Nigel Clifford, head of Symbian from 2005 to 2008 and now CEO of Procserve, described the lack of a single Symbian app store as one of Symbian's "fatal fragmentations".  "It was offputting to anyone without the resources to create one of their own - and they are expensive things to develop and maintain," he said.

There was another spanner thrown in the works of the app strategy, there were four different UIs that ran on top of the Symbian OS builds: S60, S80, S90 and UIQ.  

Despite their common OS, no app written for one OS could be used on the other – while elements of code could be reused, a developer wanting to write something that worked on both S60 and UIQ, say, essentially had to produce two different apps.

It was an obvious flaw, and one that Symbian was unaware of, even in its heyday.

"Unfortunately there were three things that really held Symbian back – one, having to charge a licence fee (which we eventually solved); two, not having a unified and complete UI developed with the OS; and three, the fragmented app/ecosystem community," said Clifford.

"We wanted to have control of these last two elements but the handset vendors guarded them jealously as they saw these as differentiators for their individual devices and companies. They therefore kept these pieces in their organisations rather than allowing us to develop them alongside the OS to create a fabulous unified user experience like you get from Apple - and so make their devices more compelling and competitive in the face of the bigger threat of Android, Apple, RIM competition."

Symbian's phone heritage

But all of these near-misses pale in comparison to one of the main technological drivers that helped push Symbian into decline. Unlike Android and iOS, whose heritage is rooted in the world of computing, Symbian was an entirely phone-centric OS – its roots were in the PDA market of the 1990s.

Symbian Belle, the last release of Symbian. Image: Nokia

"There had been decisions taken in the architecting of Symbian going right back to its beginning that meant it was going to be fairly inflexible in terms of how you could change the user experience to accommodate things like touchscreens and gestures," Tony Cripps, principal analyst at Ovum, said.

"Symbian ran out of steam – it ran out of development potential, particularly as it was geared at that higher end of devices. Symbian was becoming an unmanageable bit of software. It represented challenges in how you could change the user experience."

Or, as West and Wood summed it up: "Symbian was limited by its legacy code and its installed based to meet the challenge of more modern APIs and better development tools provided by Apple and Google, which both started with a clean slate."

Perhaps it's no surprise that Symbian had become unmanageable. Aside from its Psion heritage, Symbian was "held captive" by its partners and the industry at large, according to Lee Williams, former head of the Foundation.

"To release Symbian products at that time [when the Symbian Foundation was created], we were certified on over 200 operator or carrier networks around the world. I remember in one case there were 10,000 requirements to get Symbian products onto that one carrier's network. A typical carrier requirement would anything from do or don't include wi-fi support to where things showed up on a menu.

"A lot of things that analysts or people in the press assumed were archaic or limitations in the Symbian system were actually requirements that may have come from some other part of the world," he said.

Symbian, once a high-end platform, stagnated – it couldn't change fast enough to compete and so attract developers.

Data sources: Canalys, Symbian, Gartner. Image: ZDNet

When the Symbian Foundation was created and the decision to open source the OS was taken, it hoped to unleash the software – from its licence fee, from its closed roots, and from the supply chain that held it hostage.

By going open source, the Foundation hoped they'd give operators the confidence to keep investing in the platform. The signs were good: by going open source, the foundation was taking Symbian out from under the dominance of Nokia, and removing the licence fee. Moves were made to address the question of fragmentation with unification of Symbian UIs under Series 60 and the addition of the Qt software layer which would make porting apps across platforms – MeeGo, Series 40 and Symbian, a lot easier.

There were even efforts to tackle the apps and ecosystem question. After Nokia's launch of its own, rather than a Symbian, app store provoked "much heated discussion and conflict", the Foundation started work on an uber-store with APIs that third-parties could use to fashion their own stores from. For example, developers with five apps could make a mini-store just containing those apps. Better yet, they could sell them through the Foundation's channel without the organisation taking a cut.

It didn't fly.

"I don't think we were ever untethered or empowered to compete directly at an ecosystem level [...] looking back in hindsight, we weren't as successful with apps, or app stores or developers or any of those things we has as goals at the foundation because we weren't empowered to succeed. There was still a lot of conflict, some infighting among the manufacturers and issues that needed to be resolved" such as who would pay for the necessary development work, said Williams.

And, despite the promising initial signs, those who had joined the Foundation in its early days began to peel away.

"The open source experiment soon proved a failure," Wood and West write. "With the rise of Android, other potential handset sponsors stopped funding the Symbian Foundation, leaving Nokia's contributions (and its internal R&D group) providing nearly all the resources to support the platform. While shipment of MOAP phones continued in Japan, in October 2010 both Samsung and Sony Ericsson announced they would no longer develop Symbian phones."

For Wood and West, the problem that really saw Symbian fall apart was, retrospectively, inherent from its very beginning.

Symbian's ability to set an independent course was "ultimately constrained by the dual role of its largest shareholder and customer [...] We believe Symbian's eventual failure suggests key difficulties in achieving platform success in the case of divided leadership. To begin with, the existence of such divided leadership suggests a broader problem of defining and operationalising platform leadership with multiple leaders. For example, Gawer and Henderson (2007) define Microsoft and Intel as platform leaders [with Wintel]; if the Symbian platform were similarly defined, then the leaders would be Symbian and ARM but clearly platform licensees played a crucial (if not controlling) role in its evolution."

The beginning of the end

When Nokia announced in 2011 that it was ditching Symbian as its primary smartphone platform in favour of Windows Phone, it effectively signalled that the end was nigh for the OS. Nokia said it would wind down its use of Symbian, and later that year announced that Accenture was to take over development work and support for the OS.

That outsourcing deal will close in 2016, and is unlikely to be renewed. Nokia has been Symbian's biggest champion throughout its life and, when it said this month that last year's PureView 808 will be the last Symbian device it ever makes, it was the final nail in the OS' coffin.  When the Accenture deal finally runs out, Symbian will be over 15 years old.

Nokia's last Symbian phone, the PureView 808. Image: Nokia

Series 40 - Nokia's proprietary, budget OS – practically shares a birthday with Symbian; it too is around 15 years old. When you got your first phone, there's a good chance in ran Series 40, and for many people in developing economies, the same is still true.

When it was clear that the iPhone and Android duopoly was having a significant impact on Nokia, it was thought that the low-end Series 40, not Symbian, would be axed and that Symbian would take over as Nokia's midrange and budget OS of choice. It was not to be.

As Dean Bubley, founder of mobile analysts Disruptive Analysis, wrote in 2008: "There has been a certain amount of speculation that Nokia would push Symbian and S60 down further into the feature phone space, perhaps even getting rid of S40. That's clearly nonsense - S40 has to sell at price points right down to the bottom end of the GSM market, and up to some pretty decently-featured higher-end 3G devices. Symbian won't scale down that low."

Rumours surfaced again that Series 40 was for the chop last year, with Nokia working on a lightweight Linux OS called Meltemi, destined for mid-to-low range that Series 40 traditionally occupied.

The Rasputin of mobile OSes

In the middle of last year, it was reported that Meltemi development work had been killed off as part of cost-cutting efforts at Nokia, and the company would be sticking with Series 40. (Nokia never officially confirmed Meltemi's existence, but Nokia CEO Stephen Elop can be seen referring to it in this YouTube video.)

Meltemi, according to Reuters sources, was "to replace its Series 40 software in more advanced feature phones... Meltemi would enable a more smartphone-like experience on those simpler models." However, rather than scale down Symbian or scale out Meltemi, Nokia decided to simply scale up Series 40, putting effort into both its ecosystem and new handset lines.

Today, Nokia is targeting three main consumer segments with Series 40: 'first time buyers' – those buying phones for the first time, or phones with a particular feature set such as music or video for the first time; older users who've been with Nokia for some time and have decided they don't need or want a smartphone; and young, urban consumers, typically in emerging economies, who want to be able to access social content and services on their phones but are constrained by their budgets and their mobile networks.

It's the last set of consumers that Nokia's Series 40-powered Asha is targeted at: users who want a $600 smartphone but can only afford a smartphone-like experience for $100. A handful of months after Meltemi had met its end, Nokia began to count its touch-input Asha range, which run Series 40, as "smartphones".  However, it's a nomenclature that most industry watchers would disagree with –  Series 40 devices are more often considered feature phones, touch or no touch, as the OS doesn't run native apps (a key facet of a smartphone), just web and Java apps.

Series 40's late start

It was only in mid-2011 that Nokia began to push Series 40 as a platform for apps, and mainly web apps at that. (Apps for Series 40 come in two flavours, web and Java.)  In April 2011, it introduced Nokia Web Tools – Eclipse-based tools which allow developers to create web apps for the Ovi browser – the proxy browser found on Series 40 phones. The next year, it brought out the 2.0 release, which added more touch features including updated APIs and multitouch simulation – which Nokia's developer blog said it hoped would "bring smartphone-like capabilities to some of the most affordable price points ever with the Nokia Asha Touch range".

And while Symbian failed to capitalise on its headstart in building an ecosystem, Series 40 doesn't seem to have suffered too badly from being late to the party. While download figures are low considering the platform shifts hundreds of millions of devices a year, momentum is growing.

Around 15 million Series 40 apps are downloaded a day, according to Nokia, and 42 percent of the last billion apps downloaded from the Nokia Store were for Series 40; a figure likely to rise considering the steep drop in Symbian shipments).

Nokia's CEO is aware of the importance of continuing to build up that ecosystem.

"There is a healthy ecosystem of applications around the Series 40 and Asha products. It's a very, very major source of downloads of applications and content for us. It's something that very much we're interested and continuing to drive," Elop told analysts recently, adding: "We can offer [developers] an opportunity to make their applications visible and marketed to a very much larger customer base than virtually any ecosystem, so there is some strength there."

Nokia's recently launched Asha device, the 310. Image: Nokia

You would hope so – Series 40 remains a hugely popular OS. After reaching the milestone of 1.5 billion Series 40 handsets sold (a large figure, granted, but one it had a decade to reach) early last year, Nokia still sees the platform as key to its expansion – with Nokia's then-SVP of mobile devices Antti Vasara saying at the time: "We sometimes forget that half the world's population does not have a phone. So, celebrating 1.5 billion is great, but it's backward looking. What we want to say is – we are only half way to where we are going."

After all, unlike the smartphone segment, there are still battles to be fought and won for Nokia in the mid and low-end. Nokia's Windows Phone and Symbian ranges may have an average selling price of €186, bringing in €1.2bn in sales, it's still small fry compared to S40 and its lower-end cousin S30. Devices on the platforms manage an average selling price of a mere €31, but when Nokia is shifting around 80 million of them in the last quarter, that's €2.5bn of sales – double what those fancy Windows Phones bring in.

The smartphone future

"I know there is a kind of perception in the industry that there's a huge shift towards to smartphone advances and the huge segment that Series 40 is addressing will disappear. We see the exact opposite. It's a very significant market size, not just today but in the years to come. Series 40 is an area that we're not just going to keep doing, but we're going to invest in more and more in the future," Saulo Passos, Nokia's head of communications for mobile phones, told ZDNet.

But how long can Nokia keep the Series 40 gravy train going? Does it really have enough puff to find Nokia the next billion users? The fact that, despite the homegrown threats of Symbian and Meltemi, as well as pressure from cheap Android phones, Series 40 has survived, implies that Nokia thinks so.

But not everyone agrees.

"There's a question about how far can you take a platform like Series 40 without breaking it, what kind of capabilities can you ultimately give a device that runs on that software platform before you run out of its capabilities and probably of the hardware it runs on. I don't think we necessarily know the answer to that because, clearly, Nokia has been able to extract more from it than perhaps we would have expected a few years ago," Ovum's Cripps says.

"I can't know this for sure, but it's always been the case that with these kind of OSes that are effectively built from the ground up for phones or other embedded devices, they are fairly monolithic blocks of code - one implementation on one device is almost a separate OS to one on another device using ostensibly the same platform. If you could get under the surface of how Series 40 is being used on different Nokia phones, you'd probably find that's still the case."

Or, to look at it another way, Series 40 is facing one of the key problems that befell Symbian. There may be room for Nokia to grow Series 40's user base for some time, but as Android devices get cheaper and other manufacturers become more willing to cut margins to win market share, Series 40 will face a growing challenge in the low end.

The Android threat

For those consumers that want a $100 smartphone - those consumers Nokia wants to offer a smartphone-like experience with Asha - there are already a number of handset makers offering full-fat smartphones running Android, particularly in the lucrative Chinese market.

Nokia claims Android has a fragmentation problem, that at those price points Android devices are "compromised", and that it knows the consumers that buy sub-$100 handsets better — that with proxy browsing its TCO is lower, and it caters better to socially-minded users with partnerships with Facebook and EA.

But when that consumer wants to move up the stack, where can they go if they stick with Nokia? There's still a gap in Nokia's portfolio between the highest-end Series 40 and the lowest-end Windows Phone — a gap that Android will be aching to fill. A decent low-end Android can cost around $150 and while that figure may be above most Asha buyers' upper spending limit, it's a figure that will only come down. In the not too distant future, $100 will get you a decent Android device – a full fat smartphone – or a smartphone-like device with Series 40. And if Nokia wants to compete on ecosystem, it might want to consider that Android brings 700,000 apps, compared to Series 40's 60,000.

The Android challenge may be a way off for now in most of the areas where Series 40 is already popular or becoming so, however. Smartphones are best used – or at least most fully-featured – when data access is plentiful. In the areas where Nokia's imagined next billion live, that data access may not be plentiful, or in some areas even existent yet, giving Nokia a period in which to build up its shipments. It's dealing with this issue head on already, making a virtue of its Xpress browser which compresses data by 90 percent. But when mobile networks are built out – and some less developed nations are already rolling out 4G – Nokia will be facing up to an Android with designs on its market once again.

Ask Nokia what the future is for Series 40, and this is the company's response. "We see a long life for that OS, because the market is there. It's a big market, sometimes we forget the amount of people that don't have a phone, or a phone that's no data or data-limited, how can you include them into the market, or make them move up, delivering compelling experiences, keeping the price with what they can afford? We're not just going to sustain [Series 40], we're going to keep investing in it," says Passos.

Nokia is trying to fight a similar challenge with Series 40 to the one it faced years ago with Symbian — how to evolve a monolithic OS with a huge installed user base, but which was far from a favourite with developers, and one which lacked content or apps ecosystem with a sliver of the popularity of its rivals.

Perhaps when Nokia finds the battle lines drawn again over that next billion, or the billion after that, it will have a more robust response.

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