Nokia And Symbian: The End Of A Beautiful Relationship?

Sometimes relationships come to an end. This certainly seemed to be the case when Nokia announced last week that its N8 smartphone will be the last Nokia N-series phone to use the Symbian OS. Instead, the Finnish giant will offer the MeeGo Linux platform on its flagship range of smartphone handsets in future.

Some feel that this decision could spell the end of Symbian, and that it is now fated to fade into obscurity.

So Is Symbian Dead?

Certainly on the face of it Nokia’s decision does seem a pity, especially considering the very hard work undertaken by the Symbian Foundation to reinvent the mobile OS as fully open source in time for this year’s Mobile World Congress.

And some are rightly wondering about the future of Symbian, considering that Nokia still dominates this operating system. Perhaps that it why only a few other handset makers have adopted Symbian while others have come out with their own mobile operating systems?

But actually there are a number of reasons why I am not overly worried about Symbian’s future.

First off, Symbian still dominates the smartphone market with approximately a 40 percent share. This is more than twice its nearest competitor, RIM’s BlackBerry.

Secondly, Nokia is not dumping Symbian. Far from it, as Nokia actually needs Symbian. Instead of using Symbian in its flagship handset range designed to combat the Apple iPhone, Nokia has (possibly correctly) decided that Symbian simply cannot gain parity with the iPhone and others using Symbian. It’s pushing Symbian downmarket.

After all, Symbian does not offer a particularly great user experience, and, despite Nokia’s efforts with its Ovi app store, the apps are lacking. What it does have is a great deal user loyalty – albeit user loyalty in the form of inertia and resignation. How many times have you heard people say “I always buy Nokia, because at least I know what to expect.”

So Symbian offers an average, but reliable user experience, which means that Nokia can rely upon this mobile OS for the mass market.

Mass Appeal

Nokia will use the MeeGo Linux version in its high-end premium handsets; the ones with the latest cutting edge components, which have to have a rewarding user experience.

Symbian will move to Nokia’s low-end smartphones that form the bulk of its product portfolio. These devices have low-cost hardware, but are tailored to capture the all important “mass market”, and not just the high-end sector.

It is a fact of life now that nearly everyone wants a smartphone, but now a smartphone costs around £120 and this is likely drop to around £80 in the next couple of years. With the best will in the world, Nokia simply cannot compete with Apple using an operating system that can run on hardware that sells for just £80.

But as Ovum’s principal analyst Tony Cripps warned, Nokia and Intel will need to pump in a lot of money into Linux-based MeeGo if it’s to catch up with competing solutions. No doubt Nokia and Intel will do so, and we could even see MeeGo appearing on other form factors such as a tablet or netbook, to take the fight to Google’s Android.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that Nokia had to do something. It has been struggling to compete in the high end for a while now. Indeed, the Finnish phone maker has been forced to downgrade its sales forecast for the rest of 2010 following competition from Apple and RIM. Second-quarter sales are more likely to be toward the lower end of, if not below, its previously expected range of 6.7 billion Euro (£5.6 billion) to 7.2 billion Euro (£6 billion), the company said in a 16 June statement.

My one concern is that Nokia may have made this announcement too soon, and now risks sabotaging sales of its upcoming N8 handset. After all, will N8 users be prepared to accept the risk of finding themselves cut off from future N-Series applications?

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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