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RIP Symbian: The Cautionary Tale of a Fallen Giant

Touchscreen Torture

In short Symbian never recovered. Developers were not prepared to throw out its considerable legacy software in order to rebuild the operating system around touch. The first touchscreen Symbian handset, the 5800 XpressMusic (below), didn't launch until late 2008. The changes it made were superficial, in the vein of the skins applied to Microsoft's equally troubled Windows Mobile platform, performance was sluggish and it bombed. Symbian was stuck and while the likes of Motorola and Sony Ericsson looked to jump ship, poster boy Nokia was determined to go down with it.


Nokia shelled out €264m to buy Symbian later that year then gave it away to create the non-profit 'Symbian Foundation'. This remarkable gesture of goodwill attempted to unify an OS increasingly fragmented by handset maker's desperate attempts at customisation and to refocus resources on its core evolution. The attempt was noble, but the fact it took until mid-2009 to launch was a further hammer blow at a time when Google's Android had joined Apple's iOS in exploiting the software vacuum at the heart of the smartphone sector.

The Moment of Realisation

By the end of 2010 Nokia wound up the Symbian Foundation, once again taking the OS in-house, but by February of 2011 it finally realised mutual sinking was daft. It announced a partnership with Microsoft to adopt the newly reinvented Windows Phone and left Symbian to die a slow death. Such was the passion for the platform Nokia saw legions of software developers walk out on strike – especially as the move also put Meego to the sword, the promising OS from Nokia's fledgling partnership with Intel. Nokia had been too loyal for too long then dropped all premise of loyalty when it finally looked death in the eye.


History Lessons

History tells us Nokia should have moved faster, that Symbian needed a rewrite not patches and Meego simply arrived too late. Had Nokia really wanted to keep control of their hardware and software destiny a move to pip HP to Palm's webOS would have likely seen the platform turn out far better under Finnish rule.

Of course hindsight is good, but learning from history is better. In this regard it is interesting today to see Android and iOS compete for Symbian-like levels of market control and observe both slow their rate of innovation to adhere to ageing UIs so they don't alienate vast, established customer bases. Their apps stores provide them with more security than Symbian enjoyed, but never underestimate the ability of customers to defect to an organisation which makes the next leap forward.

icons vs tiles

There would be a certain amount of irony if that organisation turned out to be Microsoft and its principle benefactor Nokia, but technology doesn't do fairytales...

...does it?

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.


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.


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?


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.


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 :)


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.


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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