Rory Cellan-Jones

Symbian - the battle for your mobile

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 24 Jun 08, 15:45 GMT

Back in 1999 the British company Psion was poised to take on Microsoft with a mobile operating system which was making Bill Gates quake in his boots - at least, that's what a report from a naive young BBC reporter said. The mobile internet was coming - and whoever made its operating system could reap the kind of megaprofits Windows produced from the desktop.

The Symbian platform, launched the year before by Psion in conjunction with Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson, helped make the hand-held computer maker one of the dotcom wonder shares for a brief period - until the world woke up to the fact that it was not going to be quite the powerhouse predicted by the BBC reporter.

That young reporter (okay, it was me) looked pretty daft as Psion gradually evaporated, selling off most of its business including its stake in Symbian. But today Nokia has shown that it still believes the operating system can be a powerful weapon which will shape the way we use the mobile internet. It's bought up the half of the business it doesn't own - but what is really significant is that it is taking Symbian open-source, and putting its assets into a non-profit foundation.

Already most of the superpowers of the mobile world have signed up to this foundation - and at a press conference at London's Somerset House executives were ranged across the stage, uttering all sorts of hyperbolic phrases to sum up what all this meant. It was "epoch-making", "exciting", "ground-breaking", and the new open Symbian had a mission, according to its chief executive, Nigel Clifford, "to be the most widely used platform on the planet." From next year, the existing software will be available royalty-free - currently a licence costs around $5 per handset - and a completely new open-source platform is promised, though not until 2010.

So what's all this about? Symbian has actually done just what Microsoft feared back in the late 90s, winning a 60% share of the market with 200 million handsets featuring its software. But the fact that it has not proved a huge moneyspinner for any of its owners shows two things - the mobile internet has been very late in arriving, and open-source has changed the rules of the software game.

So it's Google, not Microsoft, which is now in Nokia's sights. The launch last year of Google's open-source Android platform was an even more significant event for the mobile industry than the arrival of Apple's iPhone. It looks as though Android is falling behind schedule, with no handsets imminent, but Google's - and Apple's - arrival in the mobile world has given a huge boost to software development for handsets.

Nokia wants all those smart young software developers to be working with Symbian and is confident that open-source will make that happen: "It will create a gravitational pull that no developer will be able to ignore," says Kai Oistamo, boss of Nokia's handset division.

So the battle for your handset is under way - but it may pass many people by. Just about everyone knows whether their desktop runs on Windows, Mac OS or Linux - but who knows whether they've got a Symbian phone? In the new open-source world the operating system may be just as important - but its name will no longer be in lights.


  • Comment number 1.

    I think that things are going to start getting very interesting over the coming months and years - the concept of smartphones as 'platforms' is nothing new - Windows Mobile and Symbian have been around for years, but no-one has really made much effort to foster a developer community and build a library of rich applications, and then connect the end-user with those applications.

    Google and Apple are now doing exactly that - something that will add considerable value to their handsets. Clearly, both Nokia/Symbian and Microsoft have allot of work to do to really push the power of their respective platforms - the question is, are developers going to be willing to spend time developing applications for /all/ those platforms in a 'post-Java' world, and will the iPhone have a lead advantage as the first to get a 'developer supported' platform to market?

  • Comment number 2.

    People are flocking to iPhone and Android for development because they seem like good development environments. I have not heard one comment anywhere raving about the excitement or ease of use of the Symbian platform. It takes more than a 'open source' tag to take the world by storm. Just ask the Open Solaris project. Nokia has been all over the map with their recent moves and direction. It's hard for developers to trust them. Lastly, sticking your head above the rest only makes you target #1 on MSFT's list, again.

  • Comment number 3.

    Nokia have realised that increasingly developer mind-share (especially
    innovative independent groups) is increasingly with the open-source
    crowd. It's no surprise after having seen the reception Android has
    received (considering no Android phones are in the hands of the
    consumer yet) that they want a piece of developer pie.

    Of course it remains to be seen if these new "open" Symbian phones are
    actually open. There are number of phones out there running Linux but
    not that you would know it. They are locked down and closed to people
    who want to play with them. I look forward to seeing if I can get the
    source and tools to develop for my next mobile phone come the
    inevitable upgrade.

  • Comment number 4.

    I think that people talking about the new and exciting opportunities for Android and OS iPhone are missing one essential fact: Symbian has had applications written for it for over 15 years - everything being written for the other platforms has probably already been done on Symbian.

    This is an interesting development. I can see Nokia using their muscle to dominate the mobile market for a very long time indeed. All they need now is to consolidate their distribution channels for full impact.

  • Comment number 5.

    It's all about the software, and it's all about getting the software into peoples hands as easy as possible.

    With the new App Store loaded onto every single iPhone (even the current 1st Gen models will have access when the App Store goes live in just over 2 weeks), people have 1 click access to every app that will be written for the iPhone.

    Compare that to the other offerings, where installing software onto your device requires a lot of time and patience, and you can see that Apple are going to do very well for developers, because they have made it easy to sell software on the iPhone.

  • Comment number 6.

    Rory, Firstly I like your article, it summarizes the current situation in the mobile industry perfectly.
    I think there is an error in your link to the Symbian Website - as you linked to the Official Psion website, it might be fair to link to the actual Official Symbian website and not a 3rd party one? Even tho AAS is a great read for most Symbian users and enthusiasts.

  • Comment number 7.

    Hmmm, interesting. Tying this into their recent purchase of Trolltech, I suspect this new open platform due in 2010 will be based on their excellent Qt toolkit, allowing application developers to target the one toolkit but run on every platform out there: Symbian / Windows / Windows Mobile / Mac / Linux. That would be a major selling point to app developers.

  • Comment number 8.

    Having spent years competing in the Mobile OS space, Nokia, Sony Ericsson, DOCOMO and Motorola have all announced that they will donate their software (Symbian, S60, UIQ, MOAP) to the cause. Let's just repeat that; four of the biggest companies in the mobile space, who invested years and millions of dollars into their software, are now ostensibly giving away their intellectual property to all-and-sundry.

    So what motive is driving this unprecedented level of co-operation between the mobile giants? No-one's going to sacrifice that much intellectual capital unless they stand to lose even more actual capital somewhere else. Something's got their goose.

    The big-players are surely trying to head-off some common threat. I think the BBC is incorrect to assume that this threat would be Android's open-source Mobile OS 'Android'. I think it's more likely to be Apple.

    Though the Symbian foundation is open to all, it seems unlikely Apple would join. Apple has always differentiated itself by providing in-house, innovative and fiercely-guarded software. Moreover, Apple is rapidly stealing the wind from the big player's sails with the iPhone's funky, sexy interface.

    This should be an interesting fight.

  • Comment number 9.

    twelveeightyone, I think you're missing the point of the article. The big story is that they're making the OS open source, it's not about designing software apps to run on it. As to your point about the ease of installing iPhone apps, there's no reason every other phone manufacturer can't have one click App installs.

    I think there are two things to consider when talking about the iPhone's relevance here. Firstly, Apple decides what apps you install, they only publish limited apps on their store (hence no music players to compete with iTunes). Secondly, Apple sold 4 million iphones in the past year, Nokia manufacture a million handsets each day. If I were a developer, I'd target the million daily Nokia purchasers, not the 11,000 daily iPhone purchasers.

  • Comment number 10.

    It's interesting to see people talking so much about the iPhone. It's still a small player in the mobile world and it's still very controlled by Apple. Indeed when the iPhone first came out there where no SDK's and even now the SDK is very limited in what you can do. A lot of people suspect they where forced into releasing and SDK having seen hackers that had to bypass the DRM on the iPhone to install 3rd party applications.

    Compared to Android and now Symbian Apple are decidedly non-open.

  • Comment number 11.


    "there's no reason every other phone manufacturer can't have one click App installs."

    Then why don't they? Why haven't they done it, if there's "no reason".

    "Firstly, Apple decides what apps you install, they only publish limited apps on their store (hence no music players to compete with iTunes)."

    You must work for Apple, because no one, not one single person other than Steve Jobs has said "limited apps", and no one has seen the App Store because it hasn't been opened yet. Apple were being sensible, and specifically stated that apps for pornography etc. are not allowed. VOIP will be allowed over wi-fi, but not over cellular network for obvious reasons.

    "Apple sold 4 million iphones in the past year, Nokia manufacture a million handsets each day."

    Apple did not have a handset on sale this time last year.

    ? are set to take over, mark my words.

  • Comment number 12.

    I'll let you in to a little secret. The reaction to Android and "Open" Symbian from those of us who actually develop mobile applications for a living is a groan and a sigh. In the short term, it will just increase the number of platforms that we have to support, and that costs us up front in development time, with no guarantee of sales if the platform flops, or ends up on handsets targeted at the low (poor) end of the market.

    Competition is great in principle, but i practice I would be just fine with one platform having a monopoly on handsets.

  • Comment number 13.


    That's what Nokia are working on - combining Ovi, CWM, N-Gage and Download into an embedded one stop shop.

    Apple will do well in their niche but they'll need to expand into mass market to threaten Nokia, LG and SE.


    I think that's what Nokia would like too!

  • Comment number 14.


    "That's what Nokia are working on - combining Ovi, CWM, N-Gage and Download into an embedded one stop shop."

    And I'm sure they'll call it NOKIA-OVI-CWM-N-GAGE-DOWNLOAD-MEGASTORE! and it will be as difficult to navigate as their current offerings. Apple, you cannot deny, have a nack of designing easy to use Applications, and the App Store looks like another successful implementation.

    On a side note, isn't it amazing how many people cannot see there is only one 'e' in my handle! Copy/Paste - it's been around for years (and is coming soon to the iPhone), maybe people should learn to use it!

  • Comment number 15.


    There is a slight disconnect between your description the the App Store being a successful implementation and the fact it's not been released yet. However I'm sure it will have the usual Apple slickness, however they don't have a monopoly on that.

    "not one single person other than Steve Jobs has said "limited apps""

    Surely he is the guy to listen to? The point is of course Apple control the apps, which is all very Apple. It remains to be seen if the manufacturers using these new "open" systems will give up the control of what you can run on *your* device that Apple so jealously guards.

  • Comment number 16.

    Symbian has always been a better operating system than Windows Mobile. Instinctively I have always been drawn towards WM as it makes sense to use the same OS as on my PC but WM is just so badly implemented. In particular, ActiveSync, which is essential for transferring data between PC and mobile is one of the worst, most unreliable software programs ever inflicted on the world. Microsoft have missed a major trick here.

  • Comment number 17.

    @ AlexBennee,

    Some good points made there, and I agree that until the App Store goes live, we are all speculating. I was merely pointing out that most of Apple's online purchase sites are easy to use (iTunes, Apple Store), and can become quite addictive (now films are available on iTunes, it's very easy to spend money, especially if 1-click purchasing is enabled!).

    You're right, Steve Jobs is the guy to listen to. He said "no pornography", and "no VOIP". He also said any Apps that don't run well (using loads of battery/CPU) will not be allowed. All the Apps are tested by Apple for performance and reliability, so if you don't write an efficient programme, you won't be allowed to sell it. Makes sense if you ask me.

    By saying that, I think he was merely pointing out that garbageware will not be tolerated. The trouble with most mobile apps nowadays is that anyone can release an App and run it on Symbian/WinMob etc. The problem here is that if an App doesn't run well, your phone doesn't run well. Apple are trying to keep Apps that are not programmed well off the iPhone, because if they break your phone, people will jump down Apple's throat and blame them.

    It might be *my* device, but I'd rather someone who has in-depth knowledge of the OS my phone is running on keep an eye on what can and can't run on *my* device, because they will know if it will run well, or if it will slow my phone down to a crawl.

  • Comment number 18.

    Apple have already won the battle. Nothing can compete with NextStep.

  • Comment number 19.

    [..]I have just uninstalled Gmail Application from my N82 .... reason .... Gmail mobile web interface has become greater. I want to shun all the discussions about platform war with a comment that platform will be mare base to install a mobile browser and my ecosystem of applications will be a set of Web Pointers like Bookmarks.

    Although I am in agreement with the analogy between PC and mobile platforms war, but end of day, I think better mobile browser will finish this battle of developing applications for multiple platforms. Web applications will do efficient transition into mobile web with assistance with Cloud computing on back-end.[..]

  • Comment number 20.

    I agree with people stating that it is the Apple iPhone platform and the soon to be released Apps Store that is the main competition not Android. Especially once the new iPhone 3G is available at about £99.00 which we hear it will be in July. Users don't give a stuff about whether their mobile platform is Windows Mobile or Symbian they just want their device to be easy to use and work well. Apple's control over the Apps store seems to be to maintain the quality which I'm all for, in fact I'm really excited about the new iPhone and MobileMe services. I would actually rather pay for something that works than get something that shaky for free.

  • Comment number 21.

    The elephant in the room here is that Symbian is a horrible piece of software. Everyone I know who owns a Symbian phone is familiar with the crashes, the slowness and the unpredictability.

    In response to previous posters about the IPhone, there is actually a rather long list of software you're not allowed to write for it. For example, in the latest IPhone, with SatNav support, you're not allowed to write turn by turn SatNav applications.

    Not exactly open ...


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