Monday, October 04, 2010

The Symbian Open Source Experiment Has Failed

The brave Symbian open source experiment has failed. The only two top-tier device manufacturers on the Symbian board other than Nokia have deserted it.

ZDNet reports Sony Ericsson are abandoning Symbian for Android, and Samsung headed down the Android and Bada road a while back. There are precious few device manufacturers remaining as foundation members, e.g. ZTE, Sharp and Compal, none of whom are exactly trend-setting industry leaders. The Symbian Foundation hasn’t been the powerhouse of innovation that the OS needs and it seems unable or unwilling to understand the desperate state Symbian is in. Back in July I described the Symbian Foundation as “re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” because they were complacently ignoring Symbian’s single biggest weakness – the user experience. I was criticised then by people who said S3 would be better, but it’s now nearly October, we’ve seen the new S3 devices and the UX isn’t great. The N8, for example, has a wonderful technical specification but try as I might, I can’t learn to love a UX which lacks “wow” factor and inherits too much from previous Symbian versions. I’m obviously not alone, I’m sure that’s one reason why Sony and Samsung have placed their bets elsewhere.

I don’t have an inside view into the Symbian Foundation’s finances, but I’d guess that money contributed by board and foundation members is going to shrink because more will depart. This will further reduce the Foundation’s ability to work on Symbian, and shifts even more of the burden back to Nokia. One of the items on Steve Elop’s strategic review agenda is sure to be the future of Symbian. So if you were Steve Elop would you (a) abandon Symbian, (B) absorb it back into Nokia (on the basis that the vast majority of the development is done by Nokia) or (c) do something else?

If I were Steve here’s what I’d do: Firstly it’s too early to abandon Symbian. It’s sick, but it’s far from dead; it’s still outshipping other mobile OSs by a huge margin. There’s a lot of value in owning a platform, it differentiates the handsets and provides Nokia with an ecosystem of developers, an app store, opportunities for cloud services and so on. Ovi without Symbian would struggle to survive. Also, Symbian can run on some very low cost devices – Nokia’s least expensive Symbian handset is around EUR 115. Symbian will allow Nokia to push smartphone prices aggressively down to undercut Android.

Secondly, I’d keep Symbian as an open source platform, if only for marketing purposes. If Symbian improves in the future some device manufacturers might re-discover it as a way to compete with Android. But there is no business case for spending any meaningful amount of money on the Foundation because in my personal view it’s adding approximately zero value. The Foundation might survive in some form without Nokia or it might wither and die. I doubt many people care either way.

Thirdly, I’d take all the important Symbian development back in house which would eliminate time-wasting Foundation activities like release councils, architecture councils, user interface councils. What Symbian needs is agility and vision, not committees, and if Symbian is fixable it will be fixed a lot faster under a single leader. And great user interfaces aren’t developed by committees.

In my view we need to separate Symbian’s problems from the Symbian Foundation’s problems. Symbian can be fixed - if Nokia acts very rapidly. Symbian 4 needs to be nothing less than outstanding, if it’s not then Nokia may have to face a difficult decision about whether to abandon Symbian entirely and rebuild Ovi in a new form.

Via Nick Jones


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