The Trials and Tribulations of Symbian

Symbian, Nokia’s operating system for its smartphones, has had a rough go of it lately. Globally, it used to be the king of smartphone operating systems, holding a commanding share of the market. That started to change as RIM started to break out of its North American confines, the iPhone came out, and then Android arrived at the party. Before that, Symbian’s only real competitors were Windows Mobile and PalmOS. But Symbian never managed to take hold in North America, a market dominated at various points by PalmOS, Windows Mobile and BlackBerry, until iOS and Android started their ascent. It appears (according an article in The Register) that big changes may be afoot for Nokia. The current rumour is that Nokia may be moving to the Silicon Valley, and abandoning it’s Finnish homeland. The move itself is interesting enough, but once again rumour is that Symbian will be dropped in favour of something else, this time Windows Phone 7. Of course, word spread that Symbian was going to go away last summer, but that never came to pass (Nokia denied the rumour, claiming to be behind Symbian 100%, but while also saying the MeeGo would be part of the picture). The current word is that an announcement will be made February 11th of a Nokia and Microsoft partnership.

I’m not sure Nokia is at a point where it can forge its own path on operating systems anymore. I am also not convinced that Nokia will succeed by choosing either Windows Phone 7 or MeeGo. Of the two, Windows Phone 7 at least means riding on the coattails of the Microsoft brand (for what that’s worth) and having access to their Marketplace. Personally, I think that Nokia’s best chance of having any success, and getting some presence in North America, is to jump on the Android train. Certainly Microsoft would like to have another high-profile handset maker in the Windows Phone 7 portfolio, and displacing a competitor at the same time would improve their chance in the market. But for Nokia, I’m not sure this isn’t necessarily a winning proposition. Windows Phone 7 has started out pretty slowly. Granted, Android didn’t have initial sales on the same scale as iPhone, but sales did accelerate fairly rapidly after a few months. Microsoft actually lost market share in the 4th quarter of 2010 (according to Canalys), having it cut by more than half, and shipped fewer units. And this drop in share and units happened right when their newly minted OS hit the streets, and with both the US Thanksgiving and North American Christmas as part of the sales picture. While Microsoft wasn’t the only one to lose market share, they were the only major platform to move fewer units over a year ago.

I don’t see a Nokia-Microsoft partnership being a huge boost to either platform at this stage, although it may help the fortunes of Windows Phone 7 a little bit. What I see is a dramatic drop for Nokia smartphone sales globally, and a continued non-presence in North America as Android, BlackBerry and iOS continue to increase sales.