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RIP Symbian: The Cautionary Tale of a Fallen Giant

Gordon Kelly

by

Symbian

Dear developer,

Thank you for your improvement ideas, thus Symbian is in maintenance mode and no new features will be implement[ed] without extremely good reason (business case). We have written down your ideas for future development if there is a chance that new features will be released.

Kind Regards

Nokia Developer support

As death knells go, the one which sounded out for Symbian this week could hardly have been quieter or less acknowledged. No formal press release, no statement from Nokia CEO Stephen Elop – too busy with his Windows Phone 8 obsession – and not even a blog post. Instead it was left to Developer support to tell the user of a Nokia E7 that they did not care about his reported bug. Symbian is in 'maintenance mode', its evolution (and consequently its life cycle) had come to an end.

Detractors will immediately rush to say Symbian's relevance ended a long time before that, and they'd be right. Once king of the ring, Symbian has failed to land a meaningful blow in years and now punch drunk and slumped to the canvas it simply awaited a 10 count.

Psion

Historic Heights

It wasn't always that way. Having fallen so far it is easy to forget how high Symbian once soared and how influential it was in putting mobile phones into our pockets. Originating from Psion's EPOC operating system in the late 1980s and featured in class redefining devices like the late 90s Psion Series 5 and Psion Series 7 PDAs. EPOC was rebranded 'Symbian OS' when Psion's software division became Symbian Ltd in 1998 following a huge joint venture with Ericsson, Nokia and Motorola.

The deal was a landmark creating a standard platform for the world's largest phone makers. Slowly Nokia became the dominant player reaching a near-50 per cent market share in 2007, a figure no single company is ever likely to achieve again. Symbian's success, however, was even greater with Gartner claiming it appeared on nearly 70 per cent of all handsets sold at this time (see diagram). Android is creeping towards a similar total today, but with Windows Phone 8 and BlackBerry 10 on the way it is doubtful whether it will ever overtake it.

market share

Hardware Innovation

Quantity over quality was a common accusation in Nokia's heyday, but Symbian was driving hardware innovation. Late 2006 saw Nokia unveil the Symbian S60 powered N95 and for the first time the company refused to call it a phone. Instead it was labelled a 'mobile multimedia computer' and with HSDPA, a 5MP camera, 30fps video playback, WiFi, Bluetooth, a microSD expansion slot and stereo speakers it was certainly far ahead of its time. It sold like hot cakes and the subsequent N95 8GB (pictured) sold even better.

N95 8GB

In giving phone makers a common platform Symbian had freed them to focus on hardware. The trouble was Symbian was so commonplace, so dominant it had become taken for granted just as Apple was about to revolutionise mobile phone software with its iPhone.

Martin Daler

October 21, 2012, 1:10 pm

" Originating from Palm's EPOC operating system..."

I never knew Palm was involved. I thought EPOC was created by Psion.

Ambulant

October 22, 2012, 4:22 am

Lots and lots of factual inaccuracy here. Aside from the already mentioned Psion/Palm confusion, EPOC/Symbian OS *always* supported touch. You can see even see a stylus on the picture of the Psion Series 5 in the article. The first Symbian-based phone - the Ericsson R380 - shipped in 2000 and had a touchscreen. Nokia's S60 (the thing most people now think of as 'Symbian') may have been late to add touch functionality, but Nokia developed a whole separate Symbian-based UI system in the early 2000s called Series 90, which included touch from the ground up. Nokia canned Series 90 in late 2004, and whilst the reasons were never entirely clear, you might get some idea from the fact that the one S90 device which shipped to consumers (the Nokia 7710) attempted to drive a 640x320 touchscreen off a 168Mhz TI OMAP CPU. That's a higher screen resolution than the original iPhone (480x320), which shipped three years later with a CPU running at about four times the speed *plus* a dedicated GPU.

There also seems to be confusion in the article about what Symbian is/was, and how this relates to Nokia. Until 2008, 'Symbian' was a standalone company, albeit with Nokia as a major shareholder, which developed a single product: a mobile operating system called Symbian OS (originally EPOC). Symbian OS included various tools and libraries, but no user interface, largely because Nokia strong-armed Symbian into withdrawing from UI development in 2002. Symbian OS plus S60 were briefly marketed together as 'Symbian' after the Nokia buyout in 2008, but S60 always was purely Nokia-owned and Nokia-controlled.

I'm not trying to suggest that Symbian OS was not without flaws - for one thing it made life trickier than necessary for developers - but as a mobile operating system it was very well engineered. Most of the criticisms of Symbian-based products from consumers and pundits are rooted in Nokia's own execution problems, not deficiencies of the underlying OS used to build Nokia products. Suggesting that Symbian was a dead weight for Nokia is therefore misleading - the dead weight was S60. If Nokia had stuck with S90 until hardware was available to run it properly, or had invested in properly re-engineering S60 whilst it was still selling by the bucketload, Symbian would still be the dominant mobile OS today. Nokia ran Symbian into the ground, not the other way around.

Gordon394

October 22, 2012, 12:06 pm

It was, which in turn was spun off to Psion Software Ltd which became Symbian Ltd. I think you need to re-read the first page ;)

Martin Daler

October 22, 2012, 2:24 pm

"It was...", as in 'it was created by Psion', or as in 'Palm was involved'?

I'm assuming from the rest of your reply that you mean the latter. Seriously, I never realised Palm had any involvement, I thought EPOC was germinated from scratch by Psion.

Martin Daler

October 22, 2012, 3:56 pm

...one of the reasons for my doubts is that EPOC existed (late 1980s) before Palm was founded (1992). I could be wrong?

Gordon394

October 24, 2012, 2:23 am

As established earlier 'Palm' is a typo for Psion, that should clear up a lot of your post.

I also don't suggest Symbian hadn't been touch capable, but the evolution of how touch was to be used - capacitive screens, multi-touch, finger rather than stylus with an OS designed from the ground up for it is the emphasis. I think you know this and are trying to use it to get a larger defense of Symbian posted (Symbian fans are as dedicated as the most hardened Apple and Google fanatics!).

I think this editorial is one of the most sympathetic viewpoints you'll see towards an OS which has been a punchbag in recent years.

In someways I agree with your point, but it is one we can put in a sentence: Nokia needed to evolve its software faster and in closer conjunction with its hardware. It didn't, hence this editorial exists and let's hope it acts as the warning to others I intend it to be.

Gordon394

October 24, 2012, 2:23 am

It's Psion, a nasty typo - but thanks for all the fact checking and arguments put forth chaps. Much appreciated :)

Ambulant

October 25, 2012, 3:10 am

I'm not exactly a Symbian fan, but I did work there for six years from fairly early on, and it's not hostility towards Symbian that bothers me so much as the factual inaccuracy of almost all reporting on the subject. Regardless of an author's pro- or anti-Symbian stance I just don't think it's helpful to use sentences like 'the first touchscreen Symbian handset ... didn't launch until late 2008', when in fact it launched 8 years before that, or 11 if you include devices that are not phones. I'm absolutely not angling for you or anyone else to be sympathetic towards Symbian (or Nokia) - I'd just like to see some factual accuracy.

I do broadly agree with your summary, although I think Nokia's specific failing was lack of Jobs-style vision and decisive leadership, rather than anything particularly to do with technology - there was just nobody was driving the developers and hardware guys in a particular direction. Nokia functioned more like a set of nominally allied but still warring tribes, compared to Apple's emperor-led Roman army.

quinyus

July 4, 2013, 8:15 pm

you couldn't be more right and I fear that nokia may do the same to windows phone. But why did the other manufacturers abandon symbian?

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