Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Can Open Source Save Symbian From a Ford Taurus Fate?

Today, Nokia announced that it is buying the shares in Symbian that it does not already own and taking it open source. Clearly the intent is to shore up, and some would say save its hugely profitable smart phone product line.

Ok, so the first thing the Symbian/Nokia fanboys will say in the comments to this article is that Symbian doesn't need saving -- after all it has a 65% worldwide share of the smart phone market.

But of course anyone with a pulse that has tried an iPhone, seen an Android demo, or looked at either SDK, knows that Nokia has plenty to worry about.

The problem is that open sourcing Symbian will not fix its problems. Symbian's problems, if fixable, were just as fixable as a closed source OS.

There are two basic issues:

First, no one wants to develop for Symbian. While I have never developed for the Symbian, I have heard the reason people don’t like it is because its hard. With both the iPhone and Android, you can get something cool – really cool – up and running in a few days. Apple's development tools are the same five star drag and drop tools that Mac developers use. These kind of easy super productive tools get developers excited.

But actually, the reason developers are more jazzed about Apple and Android is irrelevant. The fact is that given the number of Symbian compatible handsets in the market, there should be tens of thousands of serious developers, hundreds of thousands of people who have dabbled, and thousands of great, world beating, phone defining apps.

But there are not.

To be clear, I am sure there are thousands of apps of some sort. But super cool, exciting in 2008, world-beating apps, not so much. While hard statistics are not yet available, it looks to me like there are already more iPhone developers than Symbian developers. And while this is hardly scientific, it is based on the extraordinary number of iPhone SDK downloads in the few short months that it has been available.

The second issue is that there is nothing sexy about Symbian based phones. Regardless of your own personal "I have a Symbian phone and love it" opinion, the market (press, developers, users) is fawning over iPhone and Android. Fawning is the always-present side effect of sexy. There was, several years ago, a general excitement about Nokia's smart phones. But today, all such excitement has essentially evaporated.

Of course the counter argument is that Nokia is still winning the checklist wars. For most things demoed on the iPhone or Android there is some equivalent on some Nokia phone somewhere. But in every case it is some far less compelling analog. And as European masters of design looking west will often remind us Americans when looking at our Ford Tauruses and Chevy Trucks, style matters. Ironically, Symbian has become the Ford Taurus of the smart phone market. Functional. Yes. Large market share. Yes. Ugly throwback to an older time. Indeed.

In short, Nokia's problem is that Symbian is just not pretty. It's not slick. In 2008 design terms, both its consumer facing and developer facing interfaces are far behind the times. And unfortunately, open source just isn't a very good strategy for fixing ugly. Of course at this point I am not sure there *is* a good strategy available, open source or otherwise for fixing Symbian.


  1. Hank, are you sure that Symbian is hard to program for?

    I’ve been lead to believe that getting access to the api’s required was the real issue with why development wasn’t as plentiful.

    And of course the published SDK's weren't as good, and as we've discussed before the whole reason Palm was so successful (back when it was Treo etc) was it had 'great' free SDK's.

    Based on the work that Nokia is doing with Ovi, Mosh etc http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/23/business/media/23nokia.html

    it appears to me that they are way further down the path of advanced content than most of the handset vendors.

    But as you have way more experience I defer to your opnion.


    Dean Collins

  2. "open source just isn't a very good strategy for fixing ugly."

    That's an incredibly insightful and funny comment. Thank you.


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