Farewell then, Symbian

Epoc's journey: from world-beater to basket case


Analysis Ten years ago to the day, I attended the surprise foundation of Symbian. I was in Norway and sorry to miss the event today that closed the chapter - and probably the book - on the great adventure.

I find it exquisitely ironic that the philosophy behind the decision to end Symbian's independent existence as a joint-ownership, for-profit consortium has its roots in the Microsoft antitrust trial. Symbian was created because the leading phone manufacturers desperately wanted to avoid Microsoft's desktop monopoly being extended to mobile devices. They didn't want a dependency on high license fees, rigid requirements and poor code.

Well. Philosophy might be a grand way of putting it - it's more of a fashionable buzzword. This is the idea of "multi-sided markets", which when you get down to it, is really just a fancy way of describing cross subsidization. The case for a "multi-sided business model" was made in an economic defence of Microsoft's strategy of bundling Windows Media Player with Windows in the EU antitrust case. So take a bow, economist Richard Schmalensee, Microsoft's favourite economist. It was Schmalensee who in the US antitrust trial argued that the true price for Microsoft Windows should be around $2,000 per license. The idea that emerged from the EU trials was that WMP created a "platform", and therefore consumer benefits. The idea here is that Nokia, which now entirely owns Symbian, will cross-subsidize the market by giving away the Symbian OS, er ... platform, royalty free. So it's a triumph for the new science of "Freetardonomics".

If the ploy is successful, Symbian becomes the go-to OS if you want to make a phone. You just pick up the software stack for free. Nokia benefits from the halo effect. But it's also fraught with problems, the first of which was apparent by lunchtime today.

The most damaging problem is that Symbian's licensees may have no desire to make Nokia stronger now that it owns the operation 100 per cent. Because it dominates the "platform" already by market share, the playing field tips steeply towards Finland. Why bother joining - to make the market leaders even stronger?

This seems to be the logic behind UIQ's decision to clamber out of the "eco-system", even before the formal press conference announcing its commitment to the happy-clappy "Foundation" had started.

UIQ is today dismissing over half of its staff: more redundancies will follow, we understand, once negotiations have taken place.

The "Foundation" may also prove to be an expensive liability for Nokia. The whole idea of "multi sided markets" is susceptible to a change in the regulatory fashion. Should Nokia be regarded not as a benevolent platform provider but as a dominant player - not difficult given that rivals such as Ericsson, Siemens and Motorola have a habit of spontaneously self-destructing - then life could get very difficult indeed. A change in the regulatory weather could see the venture catch a chill.

The smart in smartphone disappeared

The smartphone wars once devoured a great deal of attention and energy, particularly during the long PR war that took place in the first four barren years - from the birth of the venture exactly ten years ago, to the first mass market consumer handset appearing in 2002. Today, apart from a few gadget fans, nobody really cares any more.

That's because the smartphone segment of the phone market is far smaller and less important than any of us thought at the time. Symbian has powered 200m phones to date, far more than any other high-end OS, but that's built up gradually over seven years. Back in 2000, the predictions were for 400m WIDs (as Symbian called them: Wireless Information Devices) by the mid-2000s.

Even five years ago, it was apparent this was a war in which there would be no winner.

How did "smart" phones lose their luster? While they were bigger, slower and harder to use than phones based on older closed platforms, they didn't offer the value that persuaded most people to put up with the pain and use the extra "smartness". For example, Google Maps runs on any midrange phone today very capably - and like Google itself, it does the job well enough.

But even then it's doubtful that Nokia and Symbian executives would have opted for Exile in Freetard Street, had it not been for two competitive factors. One is the diminishing cost of smartphone OS licenses, which reflects their market value. Google is giving away its smartphone OS, Android. As The Register's Bill Ray correctly pointed out today, that makes Android utterly pointless.

There's another factor, too. Symbian's founding CEO, Colly Myers, the father of the OS formerly known as Epoc, used to talk of the "enchantment" factor. Tech wizardry wasn't enough, he said, but the devices had to charm.

It's largely Nokia that must be blamed for failing to make Symbian phones remotely "enchanting". Nokia's UI is cumbersome (Symbian doesn't do UIs); the hardware was for years underclocked, making it slow. And Nokia's legendary marketing has appealed to nerds, outcasts and social freaks - and been guaranteed to confuse everyone.

Today it's the iPhone which has the enchantment factor. How could it not - it comes straight from the Dream Factory. And Apple must now see a clear road ahead for world dominance.

Symbian has done everything its original designers asked of it - a twenty year lifespan is not bad at all. But it's now Apple's business to lose. ®


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