Over the past few months, Nokia and Symbian Foundation have moved around assets to a degree that would make a startup blush. Yesterday, the two announced that Nokia would be taking over primary development control of the Symbian platform, but that Symbian Foundation would remain as a licensing authority.
This leaves more questions than answers. Will Symbian Foundation’s licensing role have any control over the platform’s directions? If Nokia wants to make the code difficult to use on other platforms, what is their steering power checked by at Symbian Foundation? And, where did all that EU funding go?
For example, let’s say I want to make a CDMA Symbian smartphone. Is Symbian Foundation going to help me make that happen, or am I going to have to beg Nokia to fix the bugs in the CDMA support that hasn’t been revived in eons?
I know that seems harsh, but these perpetual shakeups around the Symbian platform make decision makers question what in the world is going on with Symbian. I’m not even going to try and figure out the EU cash breakdown, but I suspect Symbian Foundation is keeping it, to pay a lot of people, to try and see if Symbian has a future outside Nokia. Personally, I doubt it, but for once my tax dollars aren’t being wasted on the bailout, so I really couldn’t care less.
This is the part where I ask if Symbian Foundation is the technical equivalent of digging holes to fill them. Which, for a government-backed bailout, is pretty par for the course…
What I do care about is the assertion that Symbian is a relevant smartphone platform. Do I believe it can be? Yes. Do I believe it is now? No, I do not.
Here’s why. Symbian is shipped on a lot of feature phones. These are phones that Nokia, developers, and carriers know very well will never be used as smartphones. These are phones with better cameras, better audio quality, and what retail salespeople push to consumers that don’t want/need an Android/MeeGo/iPhone platform.
There is a sliver of customers that do use smartphone-grade services like Ovi Maps, but don’t use App Stores, multitasking, etc. Most of those are, in my opinion, impulse buys. Those customers would buy a BREW MP phone if it was billed as “Navigation Edition” or one of the other branding that Nokia routinely uses.
Where’s the proof? Just compare App Store download rates. People aren’t downloading from Ovi, compared to iOS and Android. Only webOS and Windows Marketplace fall below Ovi Store. And, I don’t need to explain why those two have issues… those companies know what they need to do, respectively.
Sony Ericsson knows all of this all too well. They targeted the elite with UIQ. And failed round after round. Android saved the company, quite literally. Motorola? Same story, bigger win with Android so far too. The point is that the user base of Symbian users who take advantage of more than what BREW MP or other elite featurephone platforms tap into is small. Worse, Nokia wants to sell those customers MeeGo devices.
In the end, there are two customer bases for Symbian. Those that would otherwise use BREW MP, and those heading to MeeGo, with nada in-between. Nokia is still living in a dream world if there is this magical, hidden space in-between. There isn’t.
That said, Android is struggling to break into the featurephone world. I’ve seen a few, and quite frankly, Symbian blows them away. For Nokia to thrive in this marketplace though, Symbian has to stay open in development. No more forking of projects like WebKit and making it cumbersome to contribute back to the upstream projects. Ordinary consumers don’t care, but it affects the product and it affects developers.
Right now, Android is more open in development than Symbian. By a mile. Nokia could take the same standards in building Symbian that Google uses, and it would attract people to the platform.
Otherwise, nobody will want to partner with Nokia as a device manufacturer. Anyone that hasn’t already ran for the hills will join Motorola and Sony Ericsson. And, the EU will be asking why â‚¬22,000,000 went up in smoke. In the end, Nokia will be asking how they became the next General Motors.