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Symbian looks west for future growth

An open-source mobile operating system from the Symbian Foundation won't be ready until 2010. In the meantime, it must find a way to crack America.

Symbian phones such as Nokia's N95 haven't sold well in North America, but the Symbian Foundation wants to change that. CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--Americans are ready for smartphones, but is Symbian ready for America?

One of the most important factors that will dictate the long-term success of the Symbian Foundation will be its ability to make inroads in North America, which has been a bit of a enigma to London-based Symbian and Nokia, its former controlling partner. Think about it: Symbian has the lion's share of the worldwide market for smartphone operating systems, but new Symbian Foundation executive director Lee Williams agreed that if we walked outside the Symbian Partner Event in San Francisco, we'd be hard-pressed to find a passerby familiar with the mobile operating system.

It's a new era for Symbian, as it transitions from its past as an independent software developer controlled by Nokia into an industry consortium responsible for creating an open-source mobile operating system. The Symbian Foundation plans to release its first distribution to members during the first half of 2009, and phones with the operating system should follow in 2010.

With just under 50 percent of the total market for smartphone operating systems--but slowing sales--Symbian occupies an interesting place as smartphones evolve into sophisticated mobile computers. The vast majority of that market share comes from Europe and Asia, the legacy of lukewarm interest in smartphones from U.S. carriers and consumers for several years.

Research in Motion and Apple are the companies cleaning up in the U.S. market at the moment, spurred by the response to Apple's iPhone a year and a half ago. But those companies provide a high-end smartphone experience that not all customers want, said Roger Smith, director of next-generation services at AT&T, which sells both products.

As a result, organizations like Google and Symbian are jockeying for position as all mobile phones become smarter, and require more sophisticated operating systems than currently run on so-called "feature phones." Williams thinks the key to winning over North American consumers is to heighten awareness of Symbian with both consumers and developers in this hemisphere.

Developers need only to be reminded that Symbian has a proven record as a smartphone operating system, Williams said. The Foundation is planning to unify the three previous user interfaces that could be found on Symbian phones in favor of the S60 interface, which will make it much easier to guarantee that applications will work as designed across all Symbian phones.

Williams also thinks that developers will prefer the distribution method that the Symbian Foundation is planning for its applications. Call it the "app mall," as compared to Apple's App Store; Symbian wants to provide multiple ways for developers to distribute their applications, including through carriers, handset makers, some type of Symbian-branded application store, or on their own. And developers will get to keep all their revenue, rather than giving Apple a 30 percent cut of iPhone applications or the carrier a similar percentage for Android applications.

The harder sell will be consumers. Nokia's Symbian phones have not sold particularly well in the U.S., although it's not clear if those who are using them are aware of who developed the software running their phone. And the company doesn't appear to be trying to make any kind of breakthrough in user interface or features with its development efforts, focusing instead on marshaling developers and improving an operating system so popular with smartphone users outside the U.S.

Williams agreed that Symbian will have to spend the time and money required to raise awareness of its brand among U.S. consumers by showing off what the software can accomplish. One way that will be easier is that Symbian has some heavy-hitting partners on its back in Nokia and AT&T, who can carry a lot of the marketing water for Symbian.

In truth, it really doesn't have any other choice. Symbian devoted an hour of Thursday's event explaining to Symbian partners how the U.S. market was different from the European market, emphasizing points such as the fact that most Americans don't use public transportation to get to work.

The lure is clear, however. There is a huge potential market waiting to be tapped as North Americans grow more accustomed to doing more with their phones, hundreds of millions of potential customers.

"The largest percentage of products I've ever seen are focused on North America," Williams said, referring to Nokia's product development plans. It's still very early in the history of this market, with plenty of time for companies and consumers to forge allegiances with products.

But in a market that moves as quickly as this one, when the first Symbian Foundation phones roll out in 2010 things could be very different across the pond.