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Symbian: We have time to beat Apple's iPhone

Company has been slow to enter the race against Apple and RIM in the smartphone war, but its futurist David Wood thinks it has plenty of time. He might be right.

I had dinner Monday night in London with David Wood, futurist at Symbian, and came away feeling strangely calm. Perhaps it was the exceptional food at Veeraswamy, capped off by a bitter chocolate ice cream....

Or perhaps it was the fact that Wood has spent 21 years with Symbian (and Psion before it was acquired by Nokia), long enough to live through several mobile revolutions and not get too ruffled by any particular one.

In fact, over the course of our dinner Wood pulled out his back-to-the-future Psion Series 5mx on several occasions, a device released a decade ago yet eerily resembles the cutting-edge Netbooks and smartphones of today.

Plus ça change...

Symbian has proved to be such a formidable competitor in Europe and the Middle East, but has underwhelmed in North America and Japan, though it claims roughly 50 percent of the global handheld market. In part it stemmed from the fact that Symbian had limited target GSM wireless carriers in the U.S. (AT&T and T-Mobile). Without a CDMA offering, Symbian was locked out of much of the U.S. market.

But in June 2008, Nokia announced that Symbian would be open sourced to broaden its appeal to developers. The catch? The process would take up to two years to complete. Today, Symbian still isn't open source but is actively working toward that goal.

Unfortunately, Apple's iPhone, Research in Motion's BlackBerry, and even the Palm Pre have been claiming ever-widening swaths of the global smartphone market, taking share in Symbian's European backyard. Wood isn't overly concerned. He may have good reason.

While we like to think of technology moving at incredible speed, the fact is that adoption moves much more slowly. Even in a market as dynamic as browsers, Mozilla's Asa Dotzler calls out the snail-pace shifts in browser adoption trends.

To prove his point, Wood points out how Apple's iPhone was considered near divine until the Palm Pre came out, and then suddenly criticism was heaped on the iPhone for lacking basic functionality. No multitasking? No cut-and-paste? Come on, Apple!

And so Apple has, as its soon-to-be-released iPhone 3G S shows. But the Pre's launch suggests that Apple doesn't have a stranglehold on mobile mind share. If Symbian does things right and provides compelling value as an application publisher, it should have ample time to mount a serious challenge to existing smartphone competitors.

Symbian doesn't plan to launch an App Store, Apple-style. Instead, as CNET has reported, the foundation wants to serve the same role a book publisher does: provide intermediary services between application developers and the wireless carriers. Such a strategy not only gives Symbian more devices to play on, but it also makes it a valuable partner to more wireless carriers than Apple can.

It's not a given that Symbian will succeed, of course, but Wood could be right to remain calm in advance of Symbian's launch of its open-source project. The world is not standing still, waiting for Symbian's arrival. On the other hand, it's also not moving forward nearly as fast as we might think.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.