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Opinion: What does the future hold for Symbian?

There’s a problem with Symbian, and it’s one I sympathise with. It’s old. Older than you think. Like me.

Back in the early 1990s, Psion came up with a fully multitasking, graphical, extensible operating system that was app-rich, fully programmable and which ran on the Series 3 for a month on 2 ‘AA’ batteries. This was SIBO, later renamed EPOC/16 – and there was a 32-bit follow-up for the modern age, EPOC/32, launched in 1997 for Psion’s Series 5 palmtop.

Months later, this was taken onboard and eventually renamed too, as part of Psion’s joint venture with Nokia and other phone companies: Symbian. And this forms the basis of the smartphone OS we still use on many Nokia phones today.Symbian S80

That’s a good fourteen years – an eternity in the world of tech. I’ll skip over the ups and down of the OS (though here is a good backgrounder), but in that time, Symbian has taken on a number of guises across form-factors, with the Communicator-focussed Series 80 (pictured to the right), the ahead-of-its-time touch-interface of UIQ and the one-handed Series 60. It is Series 60 that won out in terms of numbers and is likely the UI most people would picture an archetypal Nokia smartphone to run, evolving to S60, and then, eventually in 2010, the OS’s original name, Symbian was reinstated.

Contrast this to iOS, created in 2007, Android, not coming on steam until 2008, and Windows Phone, launched in 2010. By my reckoning, Symbian is almost a decade older than any of these, making it a small miracle that it’s still around at all. Remember Symbian’s early goals of running on low-powered processors with very limited connectivity (early handsets, such as the Nokia 9210, had to go online using dial-up connections – anyone remember those?), while we now have dual core 1.5GHz monsters, LTE broadband mobile speeds and battery life be damned. It’s a very different world in 2012, to be sure.

The state of Symbian in 2012

Fitting Symbian into the mobile world of 2011/2012 has therefore been something of an uneasy task at the best of times and, even with the latest Nokia Belle update (released last week), it’s hard to put even the best-selling Nokia N8 next to a popular Android or iOS phone and choose the former for performance, usability or responsiveness.

That an OS should have a natural life cycle, just as living things do, shouldn’t be a huge surprise. After all, operating systems have millions of lines of code, with hugely complicated real time interactions between dozens of always running processes, chugging away on our phone’s processors. An OS architecture designed for the world of 2001 (when the Nokia 9210 launched), let alone, 1997, is going to be a trifle out of its depth in 2012. Not least because most of the programmers who created the code at the beginning have long since moved on and we’re now on second, third or even fourth generation patches, fixes and upgrades.

At some point, in terms of code, it becomes easier to start from scratch – which is where newcomers like iOS, Android and Windows Phone come in. In five years time, you mark my words, even these will be old and creaky and under threat from the upstart OS’s of 2017 and beyond. That’s just…. life.

Symbian smartphone annual sales worldwide

A ‘franchise’ until 2016… and a place in history

All of which is why Stephen Elop famously switched Nokia’s smartphone future over to Windows Phone in February 2011, announcing that Symbian would become a ‘franchise’ platform. Effectively, Nokia would eke the OS out for a few more years in markets where it made sense, to make as many sales as possible before Symbian handsets stopped being produced. Nokia’s original estimate was 150 million more Symbian phones for 2011 and beyond. Worldwide, it sold around 80 million last year (a very respectable number, but largely in developing markets and with fairly small profit margins), but if the 150 million figure does get reached, it won’t be until 2013 or 2014, with the last sale of the last handset.

At that point, well over 600 million Symbian-powered smartphones will have been sold worldwide. 2001 to 2014. Thirteen productive years – for all the dismissal of Symbian in the tech press, some grudging admiration is surely due for the OS’s sheer survival in the cut-throat mobile world. In part, this is down to the giant of the phone world, Nokia’s persistence and (usually) willingness to put money into different form factors, robust hardware and innovations (think keyboards, cameras, Xenon flash, pentaband radios, NFC, and so on). The aforementioned N8’s camera still rules the world in that regard, besting even the latest iPhone 4S, while the Nokia E6 and Nokia E7 provide modern functions in physical keyboard form factors which have largely been ignored by the rest of the smartphone world.

Yet over the last decade, even the definition of makes a ‘smartphone’ has changed dramatically. And quickly – the original Nokia N95 from 2007, then the pinnacle of smartphone convergence, now looks somewhat twee and underpowered. That’s just over four years to take us to the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S II and Samsung Galaxy Note, with huge screens, screaming fast processors and the ambition to be a full computer in your pocket rather than just a phone with converged functions.

Mobile World Congress 2012 is around the corner and there are rumours of one last Symbian smartphone announcement. Stephen Elop said last year that the phone camera advances in Nokia’s labs far surpass the unit in the N8, so perhaps the current Symbian flagship is about to be toppled from its roost?

Symbian’s future in its remaining few years (Nokia has promised support until 2016) may well be in the hands of niche devices like the N8 and low-priced smartphones to keep marketshare up in markets which can’t afford iPhones and it’s clear that the OS’s glory days are over. But hey, like many a silver-haired pensioner, there’s no reason why it can’t live out its days with both as much dignity as possible and an awareness of its place in smartphone history.

Steve Litchfied is the editor and long time contributor at All About Symbian, ran the Psion shareware library for a decade and has been covering all mobile platforms in The Phones Show since 2006.

pic credit: My-Symbian



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