Tales In Tech History: Symbian

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Once the world’s leading mobile phone operating system, Symbian is yet another tech icon that is dead and buried

Symbian has been described by some as the most successful failure in tech history, and its story perhaps illustrates the brutal fate that waits any technology that cannot keep pace with modern demands.

For years Symbian dominated the mobile world in the mid to late 2000s, thanks to its presence on hundred of millions handsets from the Finnish mobile giant Nokia (as well as other mobile phone makers).

Indeed, in mid 2007 (the year the iPhone was launched) Symbian was the leading mobile operating system, as it occupied 65 percent of the mobile market, with one in every two phones sold worldwide carrying the Nokia logo.

And Symbian remained the top-selling phone operating system worldwide until late 2010. But just a year or two later, Symbian was dead and buried.

Symbian Origins

Symbian had its origins in the United Kingdom of the 1980s, thanks to a company that offered a tech alternative to the paper-based filofax diary.

That company in question was Psion, and it soon began to offer a pocket computer (the Psion Organiser) to replace the filofax.

The Psion Organiser ran an operating system called EPOC, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the name Symbian first arrived on the scene.

This happened in 1998, when Psion renamed EPOC as Symbian. In return for funding, Psion formed a partnership with Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola, and these mobile giants then became the official caretakers of the rising mobile operating system.

That was until Nokia bought Psion’s share of Symbian in 2004 and became the majority shareholder in Symbian Ltd. (Nokia purchased the entire share in 2008).

Symbian was an attractive OS it should be remembered. It allowed for a stunning battery life and and much lower hardware requirements than many of its competitors with similar features.

Symbian ran exclusively on ARM processors on handsets from multiple vendors (Samsung, Motorola, Sony Ericsson to name but a few), but Nokia was always Symbian’s biggest supporter and champion.

Indeed, the Finnish company produced millions of phones running the OS, and it dominated the mobile phone market throughout the early 2000s, despite competition from the likes of Palm OS and Windows Mobile.

Open Source

It should be remembered that the glory years for Symbian was undoubtedly early the mid to late 2000s, and by 2008 (the year following the launch of the first Apple iPhone), Nokia was still in a strong position.

But Nokia was a company very much still in denial that the market had changed, and Symbian was starting to show its weaknesses.

Finally Nokia did start to make some changes however. In June 2008 Nokia announced the acquisition of Symbian Ltd in its entirety. It then created a new independent non-profit organisation called the Symbian Foundation.

The Symbian OS and its associated user interfaces (S60, UIQ etc) were contributed to the foundation with the objective of turning the Symbian platform into an open source platform.

Too Little, Too Late

The move did make sense, but it failed to pay off because of the complexity of the Symbian OS. The first version of the open source Symbian was released in 2009, which in turn meant that handsets using it would only arrive in 2010.

And this was too little, too late, as Symbian at this time was now locked in a death battle with Apple and Android, and it was losing badly.

Nokia’s management by now had fully realised the mortal danger it was in, and the firm changed direction on Symbian once again when the Symbian Foundation disintegrated in late 2010 after Nokia brought control of the OS development back inhouse.

But even worse was to come for Symbian in February 2011, when Nokia (under the leadership of former Microsoft man Stephen Elop) made a fateful decision.

Nokia at this time was the only remaining company still supporting Symbian outside of Japan.

But Nokia’s Elop, in his ‘burning platform memo‘, had realised that drastic action was required. Nokia in early 2011 announced that it would use Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 as its primary smartphone platform.

This decision was the death knell of Symbian, which would be gradually wound down.

Nokia later outsourced Symbian development to IT services giant Accenture, and although support was promised until 2016, by 2012 Nokia had mostly abandoned development and most Symbian developers had already left Accenture.

In January 2014 Nokia stopped accepting new or changed Symbian software from developers, not that it mattered much by then.

The Nokia 808 PureView released in 2012 was officially the last Symbian smartphone from Nokia.

What Went Wrong

The Symbian operating system was described as essentially a shell system which needed an additional user interface (such as S60) to form a complete operating system.

But Symbian had its problems, as it was an old-school OS written in C++. It was hugely complex with an unfriendly code structure, and it typically took Nokia 22 months of development to enable it for a typical Symbian handset.

This was frankly way too long in the fast changing world of mobile in the late 2000s. In comparison it took less than a year of development to deliver a Windows Phone handset for example.

And Android came along, enabling former Symbian licensees such as Motorola and SonyEricsson to put together new phones in mere weeks not years.

“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, is quoted as saying at the time.

“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.”

That is undoubtedly true, but Symbian was also facing the combined might of Android, iOS, Windows Phone and BlackBerry OS as well. Something had to give.

And Symbian’s fate had been guided by a company (Nokia) that itself had been complacent for far too long.

The truth was that consumers from 2007 onwards were dropping simplistic mobile handsets in favour of smartphones, and this was fatally wounded Nokia as it was so closely wielded to the Symbian OS.

The writing was on the wall for what would happen next, and both Symbian and Nokia’s mobile division, were soon thrown onto the tech scrap heap of history.

Quiz: Do you know all about Nokia?

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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