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Symbian is dead. Long live Symbian

[Is Symbian coming to the end of its shelf life? Research Director Andreas Constantinou dissects the motivations behind Nokia’s strategy and why Symbian is getting a new lease of life]

Only two short years and four months since it was announced, the Symbian Foundation is shutting down. With it dies Nokia’s second effort at creating a licensable application platform for mobile phones (the first one was S60) and to compete against Android. While Nokia is shunning to make the closure official, the last OEM supporters – Samsung and Sony Ericsson – have officially killed plans for Symbian products (see here and here) and Symbian staff are being given redundancy notices and making career moves on LinkedIn. [update: On November 8, it was announced that Nokia will regain control of the Symbian governance process and that the Symbian Foundation will be reduced to a licensing team]

The writing has been on the wall since early 2010, when Nokia took out a €500 million loan to (among other things) help sustain funding into the Symbian Foundation, whose membership fees were due to be renewed in April 2010. Symbian Foundation relied on OEMs shipping handsets to take on the operational costs at the tune of 5 million GBP per OEM. The final blow came with the departure of SyFo’s CEO and co-architect, Lee Williams.

The death of Symbian
Symbian Ltd., the OEM-backed consortium that funded Symbian development between 1999-2008 had long been suffering from an imbalance of power and poor strategic decision-making. There were three things wrong with Symbian Ltd.

Firstly, with Nokia owning 48% of Symbian Ltd. shares, the Finnish OEM had been driving the agenda at Symbian to the detriment of its OEM partners, Secondly, since the UI was severed from the base OS in 2001, Nokia had been squeezing the value out of the Symbian operating system and into its own S60 UI, middleware and applications suite platform. This meant that other OEMs had to spend considerable effort integrating Symbian with their own UIQ or MOAP layers and filling the gaps that Nokia left – effectively leading to handsets which were expensive to build.

Thirdly, with the decision to have Symbian baseporting owned by the OEM and not Symbian Ltd, each manufacturer had to spend millions to get Symbian ported onto the hardware platform, in essence reinventing the wheel. While this naturally gave Nokia the edge in producing more Symbian models more often, it meant that for other OEMs most of the budget was spent in baseporting (i.e. getting the phone to work), rather than in differentiation. In 2007 Symbian Ltd. was desperately in need of a major governance re-engineering operation.

The coup de grace arrived with the launch of Google’s OHA in November 2007, signaling two major changes in the phone industry: firstly, that open-source development (inspired by mobile Linux) was now supported by a major cash-rich backer, and not an operator consortium (LiMo) or a loose congregation of Linux system integrators and design houses (Azingo, Purple Labs, WindRiver and Montavista). Secondly, that zero royalties were now the norm and operating system development was turning from a revenue generator to a loss leader. With Android changing the rules of the game, Nokia knew that for Symbian to compete in this new world, it had to be both open source and zero royalty.

Seven months on from the Android disclosure, Nokia announced that it would be buying the remaining Symbian shares outright, paying up the equivalent of 2.5 years of royalties or 2x the revenues of Symbian Ltd – a paltry evaluation for the top smartphone OS. For Nokia it was a financial and strategic move; it made financial sense because Nokia would slash its Symbian maintenance costs (from 100 million GBP of annual license fees to 5 million GBP of annual membership fees) by sharing the SyFo costs with other OEMs on the board. It made strategic sense because with the ownership change, Nokia convinced Sony Ericsson and DoCoMo to abandon UIQ and MOAP respectively and marginalised Windows Mobile which was still royalty-based. Meanwhile, Nokia could still exert the majority influence into the Symbian roadmap by employing most engineers and most package owners (effectively well into 2010).

In retrospect, Nokia failed with both S60 and Symbian Foundation by insisting on a winner-takes-all mentality, i.e. taking roadmap control away from its OEM development partners which long-term destroyed the value in the partnerships. This winner-takes-all-mentality is nothing new; it was already harming Symbian as we had argued back in 2005. The full open sourcing of the Symbian platform in February 2010 or the cute playful new brand did not succeed in stopping neither the developer defection (see our Developed Economics report) or the OEM defection from Symbian.

With Nokia shares performing miserably over the last four years, the Finn-led board took the bold decision to oust Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo and bring in a Canadian, Stephen Elop to turn the boat around. 41 days into the job, Elop announced the cutting of 1,800 jobs at Nokia and the adoption of Qt as the main development environment on top of Symbian handsets.

For Nokia, Qt presents both an opportunity and a challenge. On one hand it’s the most capable cross-platform application environment today boasting reach across mobile, PC and STB – plus depth with Qt providing a complete API wrapper on top of the native OS (and much wider API coverage than GTK to which it’s often unfairly compared). On the other hand Nokia has notoriously mismanaged the Trolltech acquisition of January 2008, with the troll CEO, CTO and key engineers abandoning ship. Meanwhile, Nokia has created a Qt break across Symbian and MeeGo UIs and not managed to fully deploy Qt on Symbian 2.5 years after the acquisition (note how Qt Mobility APIs are still way incomplete).

Long live Symbian
With Symbian Foundation soon to be diagnosed dead, the rumours about Nokia replacing Symbian are rampant. Many industry pundits are prognosticating that Nokia will adopt Android – which in 2010 is going stronger than ever – or Windows Phone 7, which comes with the freshest UI since the widget based paradigm popularised by the Jesus phone. Despite the prophecies, Symbian will live on for many years to come. As the French expression goes, Le Roi est mort. Vive le Roi.

There are two reasons why Nokia won’t be abandoning Symbian anytime soon.

Firstly, Symbian is tightly integrated with Nokia’s variant management process. Nokia is the only OEM that has mastered variant management, i.e. being able to generate 100s of variants (SKUs) at the press of a button. That’s how Nokia can deliver 100s of customised smartphones to operators and retailers around the world. This variant management process is ‘hardcoded’ to Symbian, which means that replacing Symbian would seriously compromise Nokia’s ability to cater to operator requirements around the world and it would seriously hurt its market share.

Secondly, Nokia’s economies of scale rely on in-house control of core components, and the operating systems is one of them. If Nokia were to license Windows Phone it would reduce its differentiation to industrial design and Ovi alone. In the case of Android, Nokia would have to branch Android (and to sustain the cost of Android development), port Qt on Android which means another 12+ months for a stable implementation. While this remains a long-term possibility, it is still a gamble when Nokia’s priority should be to focus on killer devices and not a killer OS. Qualcomm’s BREW MP is another candidate but only when Qualcomm has a good developer platform story and that means waiting for BREW MP to launch a web-based platform akin to RIM’s WebWorks.

Symbian may no longer be a symbiotic system, but will live within Nokia for many years to come as the workhorse under the hood of Nokia smartphones.

The King is dead, long live the King.

– Andreas
You should follow me on twitter: @andreascon

  • mirmit

    Very good view on a possible future of Symbian.

    I'm still wondering how to help other see how they can benefit from such efficient OS.

    I think you are a bit optimistic when you are talking of 12 month to get Android suitable for Nokia usage. 18 month is probably more realistic timeframe, especialy given the processes in place.

    Both Android and Windows are removing the OVI part of Nokia – key part of their long term strategy – and only bring them as plastic provider. This is against the last 5+ years of evolution within Nokia.

  • But the application development on Symbian in horrible. The SDK is also horrible, it's buggy and bloated. And then Symbian has a mess of different versions, so that nothing works on the Communicator's Symbian OS.

    I would just prefer a clean ISO Linux standardized platform. And I will not buy a phone which doesn't have it.

  • Thanks Andreas for this analysis.

    For some reasons, it seems to be hard for "paid for" analysts to really see the big picture.

    However, one thing that you overlooked in the conclusions is Qt.

    With Qt, Nokia is looking into getting their services on ALL platforms.

    I wrote a full post about how Nokia could get on Android:

    @mirmit: Nokia needs to build its service offering on the Qt platform. They already have started and the progress are quite promising. Elop has accelerated the adoption of Qt UI on devices and they should emerge by February next year.

    @mika: Have a look at Qt again.. 5mins to make an app after a one install file SDK.

  • I tried Qt, and it was superbloated. Thousands of files. Then I made my own GUI with raw OpenGL commands and it was much easier to implement.

  • Potassium

    Why do Nokia have/need both Meego and Symbian?

    Any reason why they can't just focus on one?

  • Me


    symbian is for mid range phones while meego is for high end phones. for sure, future meego phones will definitely be expensive.

  • Hi Andreas,

    thanks for the thoughtful articel on symbian future. Though I fully agree with your point, that Nokia can't abandon Symbian anytime in the neat future, I strongly disagree with your recommendation that Nokia should focus on killer hardware and not on a killer os.

    Success in the smartphone market is only possible, when devices, the OS and other parts oft the software ecosystem go hand in hand. Apple has demonstrated this with the iPhone, which used slightly sub-par hardware but could deliver a user experience through iOS/iTunes that no other manufacturer could at its launch. And only now is Microsoft able to compete and Android is just coming around, but suffers from manufacturer/operator fragmentation in the user experience.

    Concentrating only on killer hardware would be a sure path to doom, Nokia has been a hardware driven company and it needs to change this approach in the smartphone segment.

  • "Concentrating only on killer hardware would be a sure path to doom, Nokia has been a hardware driven company and it needs to change this approach in the smartphone segment."

    Well said Henning Grote

  • potassion


    Thanks but your answer doesn't answer the question as to why two.

    Symbian is currently used in all their smartphones (ignorning their Maemo thing), why can it not continue to be used for both high end and mid end smart phones?

    Or why for that matter could Meego not be used in both?

    Why does it need a separate OS for mid and one for high?

    Are we confusing OSs with feature set and UIs?

    If mid and high end phone are to have differing UIs and differing features, then that is still possible with differing top layers, the mid and bottom layers can still be the same underlying OS. Just as originally SYmbian had S60 and UIQ

  • @potassion:

    The main difference between Symbian and Meego lies with the hardware requirements.

    Symbian is a realtime OS made for embedded devices originally. Its architecture is suited for limited ressource environment.

    Meego is based on Linux and has the advantage of accommodating a wider range of hardware, especially thanks to the modular architecture of the drivers.

    However, it requires a more powerful platform to run with same UI performances than a comparable Symbian device.

    Nokia needs both of them:

    – Symbian to keep control of the costs while providing a consistent experience for Nokia users and consumers new to smartphones

    – Meego to build Mobile Computers and do the consumer acquisition from Android/iPhone

    Hope that helps understanding better.

  • mirmit

    @potassion A good question I'm still asking myself. The only reasons I see there is the marketing wind – you have a Linux based device and all analysists, blogger and so on rejoyce – the other one would be the ability to have the basement of the OS ready fo x86 platform, which is not complete on Symbian.

    I could bet to see x86/MeeGo based device from Nokia outnumber ARM/MeeGo ones. This would let Symbian as main OS for this architecture.

    From the developer perspective, it doesn't matter as ypou write your QT code and compile for one or the other target.

  • skierpage

    You make some good points, but you're still assuming Nokia continues the way it's been going.

    "Nokia’s economies of scale rely on in-house control of core components, and the operating systems is one of them."

    There's economies of scale, and then there's doing less. Nokia is trying to get to one toolkit across platforms, but people are asking why develop those platforms at all instead of just shipping Android phones. Your only reason that stands up is "variant management."

    "In the case of Android, Nokia would have to branch Android (and to sustain the cost of Android development), port Qt on Android which means another 12+ months for a stable implementation."

    Again, the cost of Android is nothing compared to Symbian + Meego work. And Nokia could port Android in months (NITDroid has it partly working), release an Android phone, then follow up with Qt for Android for their legions of developers clamoring for it and for their awesome in-house software using it. (<– sarcasm!)

    Nokia without in-house OSes (but maybe still its own toolkit) would be a very different company, but it's not unthinkable.

  • potassion


    Could you give an example please of which specific parts of its architecture is better suited to limited resource devices, and why this is a problem in a less limited device.


  • @Henning Grote @Lars Ekdahl

    Agreed: Nokia has always taken a hardware-first approach. But this is not what I 'm advocating. Nokia is seriously losing smartphone market share and that's because its devices can't compete with iPhone and Android devices. Its needs to first see how to leverage Symbian, better integrate Ovi (or other services) and improve the UI interaction paradigm (easiest way to do this is Qt).

    Long term Nokia needs a new core OS and a forked Android might be the best option out there, but it's still a very long process for an OEM that's shipping a 1+ million handsets day in day out.

    @skierpage "the cost of Android is nothing compared to Symbian + Meego work" Agreed, we measured the cost of Android vs Symbian in 2008 and Android was – and is- significantly more efficient for both the OEM and the developer, esp. with Qualcomm pre-integration. However, an OS adoption isn't a binary decision, it is a years long process for an OEM that has to salvage market share decline first, then invest in new platforms.

    – Andreas

  • @Julien Fourgeaud

    We are also "paid for" analysts, it just that we get the big picture 🙂

    Re: Qt opportunities beyond mobile: yes, this is one of the primary reasons that Nokia acquired Trolltech, so that they could deploy their Ovi apps and signature phone (core) apps across all endpoints in mobile, home media, PC, etc.

    But my understanding is that Nokia has sidelined development of Qt in non mobile environments (and note how Trolltech's most revenues were from licensing to non-mobile solution vendors). This has happened as Nokia has been focusing on getting Qt matured on Symbian/MeeGo. There is a loose endorsement of MeeGo/Qt by Genivi, but otherwise AFAIK Nokia has deprioritised Qt development outside mobile.

    – Andreas

  • @Potassion

    An easy one to understand is power management.

    In Symbian, it is build in the heart of the kernel/OS, because Symbian comes from ressource constrained mobile systems.

    In Android, power management comes as a module to the OS, and tries to "make" the OS more power efficient.


    I know, that's why I made the point 🙂

    Nokia has signed agreements with major car manufacturers. I would not be surprised if their services end up in infotainment systems pretty soon.

  • Cheese


    But taking PM as a specific example"

    – a low-end feature phone i.e. based on S40 needs power management

    – a mid-end smartphone, needs power management

    – a high end smart phone, needs power managment

    – a tablet needs power managment

    – a PC needs PM

    Hence PM is needed whatever the OS operators on, and from that perspective if its module or built into the core OS is irrelevant.

    Unless, you are saying the algorithms etc. for PM in SYmbian are hard coded and suitable only for one sort of device and are incapable of scaling to another type of device.

    Is that what you are implying, and by implication that the Symbian PM designers are so short sighted? If not then what?

    Because I for one still don't understand exactly what it is that stops an OS from being capable of functioning on both high-end and mid-end smart phones.


    I'm not intending this to sound argumentative, I want to really understand the fundamental issue

  • As one of the "key engineers abandoning ship" I just want to point out that we believe enough in Nokias ability to take care of itself, and Qt, that we founded a new company <a href="http://(http://cutehacks.com)” target=”_blank”>(http://cutehacks.com) that develop mobile apps, using Qt, for the Nokia platforms Symbian and MeeGo, we're also planning to move into Android.

    I greatly enjoyed the article though, you're spot on with a lot of stuff here.

    You're somewhat right in your "Nokia has deprioritised Qt development outside mobile", but I wouldn't worry about the Linux, Mac or Windows ports just yet 😉

  • @cheese

    You have the right to really understand, but I can't resume here.

    All in all, the system is built from ground up with constraints.

    You can easily scale that kind of system up, you can't scale others down.

    Check that out: http://archive.devx.com/upload/free/bkchapters/sy

    Symbian can work on high end specs, and you'll see that pretty soon with multi-core systems.

  • Cheese

    I do understand the Symbian OS (I was part of the team that created it in starting back in 1994, and stayed there for 10 years).

    I'm curious to know exactly what these restrains are specifically.

    If it can work on high end specs, then doesn't that lead back to the why both Symbian and Meego question?

  • mirmit


    Nothing prevent Nokia to uses Symbian in High end device.

    However, it can be complex for them to adapt it to Intel architecture, which is not the case with MeeGo, as it targeting both ARM and x86 architectures from the start.

    It could be possible for Symbian but would require a lot of work which might not be the proper approach today, giving teh apce of the industry.

    To compliment Julian point, Symbian has been designed from day 1 with constraint in mind. The PM is engraved in the system DNA, as well as the real time aspect of the kernel from EAK2.

    While on Linux/MeeGo, the primarly platform has a 'nuclear plant' connected to it. Over the last decade, we saw a lot of initiative to make linux more power efficient, but this come as a side addon, as you don't have to bother with it on desktop PC.

    Same for real time, Some kernel work have been done to enable Linux in this area, but the trend today is more having Linux on top of a virtualisation system wher the hard real time is driven by a real time OS running in parallel.

    Given the wide availlability of Linux on various Chipset, it might be simpler to enable features on new devices faster on Meego based device before reaching the mainstream market on Symbian.

    Bear in mind also Nokia is aiming MeeGo at other kind of devices than smartphone, while Symbian remain very smartphone centric.

  • marees

    If symbian had the ability to scale-up why did Nokia spend so much energy and time on maemo? Must have been something to do with the ease of developing and deploying apps for modern OS as opposed to a restrictive OS from past.

  • marees

    The link below gives a couple of answers


    1) The UI

    2) Young developers prefer latest. bit like nobody wants to develop for mainframe/cobol now

  • Herodotus

    I was beginning to like this paragraph

    "For Nokia, Qt presents both an opportunity and a challenge. On one hand it’s the most capable cross-platform application environment today boasting reach across mobile, PC and STB – plus depth with Qt providing a complete API wrapper on top of the native OS (and much wider API coverage than GTK to which it’s often unfairly compared)."

    …and then I read the next bit…

    "On the other hand Nokia has notoriously mismanaged the Trolltech acquisition of January 2008, with the troll CEO, CTO and key engineers abandoning ship."

    …and ended up ROFL

    Ah well.. that's one way to read the tea leaves. Have you been talking to Thucydides Sigs….

  • Peck


    What's restrictive about Symbian OS. What can you NOT do on it?

    And what's age got to do with anything, how old do you think Linux the foundation of Android and Meego is?

  • Peck

    @Mirmit if Meego has been targetted at both ARM and x86 then what is Symbian needed for in the next few years?

  • mirmit


    If you look at platform equirement for a Linux based device, it's nothing comparable with Symbian hence an increase of the BOM.

    Meego is targeted at High End devices, while Symbian is the rest down to the feature phone.

    Meego is in the communicating devices portfolio, while Symbian is aimed at phones.

    As the time goes, it's more likely we see less and less S40 device, even if there are still devices in development, with Symbian gaining in the entry range.

  • marees

    @peck, I have quoted below (on how difficult it is to create apps for Symbian) from the link I had given in my earlier comment post

    "But just how hard is it to develop an app for Symbian compared to the iPhone or Android? Even Symbian fans don’t want to sugar-coat the truth. It’s tough, its messy and it’s hard work.

    When Touchnote, a London-based app developer whose app turns consumer photos into postcards, set out to create an app for Symbian it turned out to be a long road.

    “For us to build a plug-in that connects the camera to the gallery of photos in the application took about four to five weeks of work,” says Gjertsen, who has worked for nearly five years with the Symbian Foundation and the company. “In Android, it took us five minutes. It was a feature built into the OS and we had to just turn it on.” Touchnote is also available on the iPhone.

    Raam Thakrar founder of Touchnote says there’s another problem. Finding young developers enthusiastic about Symbian isn’t easy.

    “Kids who are coming out of college or have two to five years experience — not many of them are getting into Symbian,” he says. “It makes it much more difficult to build things in Symbian.”


  • marees

    @Andreas Constantinou, you have beautifully summarised Symbian-Nokia's problems. I could truly appreciate your post only after going thru the detailed analysis-illustration in The Register blog-site


  • martin

    Anybody got any comments/analysis on any ramifications of the SYMBEOSE consortium and the fact its got quite a lot of funding.


    • Hi Martin,

      According to this the Symbian Foundation (or whatever's left of it) is getting 1.48M EUR over 3 years from the EC. This essentially means having around 6 people work on the project on a continual FT equivalent basis. This is just a tiny blip on the Nokia radar.


  • martin

    However the SYMBEOSE consortium is getting much much more. My question wasn't about what will happen to the Symbian foundation, rather what might the creation of the SYMBEOSE consortium mean for the future of Symbian OS?

  • martin
  • Hi Martin,

    Based on the article you pointed out, Symbeose is work on solving some next-gen architectural issues – it generally sounds like problem areas which Nokia needs help solving.

    In any case though, the future of Symbian is as an internalised OS for Nokia (much like S40). Symbeose is far too small (and Symbian is too outdated as a developer platform) to salvage Symbian for use in any other context outside Nokia.

    So I would think of Symbeose as an EU-co-funded initiative to help Nokia continue optimising Symbian for internal use.



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