Smartphone king Symbian ready to strike back

Apple gets all the attention for its iPhone. So what's Symbian, the leader in mobile operating systems, to do? Executive David Wood lays out the plan.

David Wood of the Symbian Foundation at its office in Foster City, Calif.
Mats Lewan/CNET

Just about everyone knows the iPhone--and perhaps also that it runs on Apple's operating system--though the phone only has about 10 percent market share among smartphones. Far fewer know the name of the most widely used mobile operating system, which holds nearly 50 percent of the market: Symbian.

As recently as 2007, Symbian had 70 percent share. Market share has been lost mainly because of the iPhone with its Mac OS X, and to BlackBerry devices running on RIM's Blackberry operating system.

To find out how Symbian plans to strike back, CNET News met last week with David Wood, "catalyst and futurist" at the Symbian Foundation.

"I admire Apple for their advertising. They're actually teaching people about applications. Apple has done a tremendous job."
--David Wood, Symbian Foundation

He revealed that the company has no plans for its own app store, but explained how Symbian plans to make it easier for developers to negotiate with several stores, like the Nokia Ovi Store, which got off to a bumpy start last week. On Tuesday, a developer's Web site for the new open-source Symbian went public.

He also explained the influence Nokia is likely to have on the Symbian OS.

But first he made it clear that the U.K.-based company now is growing aggressively, with the expansion happening largely at its Foster City, Calif., office.

"We have 72 employees today and intend to grow to a bit less than 200," he said. "Many will be in the Silicon Valley, in part to tap into the skills here."

The Symbian Foundation was founded in October as a base for a new open-source strategy aimed at making the Symbian OS stronger amid completely new market realities, including the success of Apple and RIM, and Google's launch of Android, a license-free, open-source operating system for mobile phones. And the Palm Pre, with its new Web OS, will only add to the competition when it goes on sale this weekend.

Symbian was founded in the U.K. in 1998 by Psion, Nokia, Ericsson, Matsushita, and Motorola, basically as the mobile industry's defense against Microsoft.

David Wood has been at the company from the start. Before that, he spent 10 years at Psion, whose operating system Epoc was the base for Symbian OS.

Until now, global mobile phone leader Nokia has been Symbian's main proponent. But Nokia hasn't quite figured out how to make the masses download applications, as Apple did.

"I admire Apple for their advertising," Wood said. "They're actually teaching people about applications. Apple has done a tremendous job."

Symbian logo

The figures prove this. In September 2008, Apple reached 100 million downloads from its App Store within two months and recently hit the 1 billion mark. But Nokia only reached 90 million downloads from its much less well-known Web site, Nokia Download, in two years.

Back in November 2007, when Google first unveiled Android, adding to the competition from Apple, RIM, and Windows Mobile, it was already obvious the smartphone market was getting much tougher. Symbian and Nokia clearly had to do something.

So last year Nokia acquired the whole company. It buried interfaces used by Motorola, Sony Ericsson, and NTT Docomo in favor of its own S60; restructured the code; and handed it over to the new, not-for-profit Symbian Foundation in April of this year, declaring that Symbian OS should go open-source and be license free.

Interestingly, Nokia simultaneously became the last major phone manufacturer to launch a modern touch-screen phone, adding touch-screen features to its Symbian-based S60 user interface.

Have all these moves come too late?

"I think it couldn't have happened much earlier, because the industry was still uncomfortable with open-source ideas," Wood said.

Comparable to Windows XP
The Symbian source code is huge: 40 million lines of code in 450,000 files, comparable to Windows XP. The open-source transition has just started, and Wood expects it to be finished by mid-2010. The developer site for the open-source project just went public at, where users now can register and find many other resources, such as forums, bug tracking, and reference documentation.

Meanwhile, foundation members already have access to the whole source code. The membership fee is now $1,500, whereas it used to cost $30,000 to gain access to the Symbian source code.

"We will have no software engineers doing programming here, just integration, validation, and verification," Wood said.

So the OS will be developed by contributions from outside. And as Nokia acquired all Symbian employees and has in-house expertise in the S60 user interface, the bulk of contributions currently comes from Nokia.

"Probably the largest contribution will still come from Nokia for the foreseeable future," Wood said. "But we hope that by maybe three years' time, maybe 50 percent of contributions will come from outside Nokia. That's why we're going the open-source route--no matter how many smart software engineers there are in Nokia, there are many more smart software engineers outside."

He also underscores that Nokia only has one voice on the Symbian Foundation board, where decisions on road maps, architecture, and user interface matters are made.

And yes, the current user interface--Nokia's S60 that was recently adapted for touch-screen use in a way that didn't really impress everyone--will be replaced.

"It's called Direct UI and has already been designed. It's available in labs and will be shipped in phones with Symbian release 4 at the end of next year," Wood said. He mentions new features, such as the capability to control the phone by hovering above the screen but not touching it.

So what about an application store? Will Symbian rely on the Nokia Ovi Store that was finally launched last week, garnering a number of negative comments?

No single app store
"We won't create a store," Wood said. "There won't be a single store for all kinds of devices that run Symbian software, because some operators and some manufacturers want to have their own store."

"The worst drawback is for developers who must negotiate with many different stores. So we're going to provide a single publishing route so that an application that meets certain criteria will automatically be available from any of these app stores."

Another headache for Symbian developers has been the issue of tool development. Whereas the tools for iPhone and Android have achieved great success among developers, many developers consider the Symbian development environment to be complicated. Wood admits this and says tools will be an important focus for the Symbian Foundation.

"The largest group of Symbian Foundation employees is the support team, which includes responsibility for improving the development tools," he said.

Two new levels of programming will be released--an easy one for widgets based on Web standards and another, more advanced, called Qt ("cute") and based on open-source code from Trolltech, a company that Nokia acquired in 2008.

Making developers happy is key, as they are often considered the lifeblood of an operating system. But competitors are accomplishing that task well. What will make Symbian stronger? According to Wood, it's about four things.

  • Openness, not only the open-source code but also in what he calls open governance--for example, publishing details of the road map early, which Symbian has already done.

  • Expertise in coping with multiple form factors while keeping the platform unified.

  • Understanding compatibility well, meaning bringing out new phones without making existing software obsolete.

  • Skills in maintaining high quality amid rapid change.

Brand awareness a possible issue
Will that be enough? If so, one issue could still be brand awareness, particularly in the U.S. where Symbian is little known because of Nokia's weak position.

AT&T's presence on the board of the Symbian Foundation could help, and so could new phone manufacturers that are choosing Symbian, in addition to companies such as Samsung , Motorola, and Sony Ericsson. According to Wood, Chinese phone makers Huawei and ZTE now want to make Symbian smartphones for the U.S. market.

But even if the Symbian Foundation manages to get a highly modern and effective OS into lots of smartphones from various phone makers, with a slick and nice-looking user interface that appeals to the masses, will end users know it's Symbian?

"I want end consumers to realize that Symbian delivers particularly slick performance," Wood said. "We would like phones that pass Symbian's compatibility test suite to have a little mark somewhere, like this heart mark (Symbian Foundation's new logo). It might appear at least on the box."