back to article Symbian Titanic heading for iceberg

In a commentary piece titled Is Symbian re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?, Gartner analyst Nick Jones provides a stinging analysis of the current Symbian state of play, admonishing the less than impressive Symbian^3 user interface and misguided roadmap for the mobile operating system's evolution. He concludes that " …


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  1. Julian 4

    Symbian OS: A Means to an end

    it's fairly accurate to surmise that Nokia always saw Symbian OS as a means to an end, since they've never really promoted the OS as such - you always have to dig into the specs to find out whether it's on any particular phone.

    That's really what crippled Symbian OS: Nokia took the amazingly capable and power efficient Psion EPOC32 O/S and neutered it to make it like a Series 40 phone, kludging on a UI which the O/S never really recovered from, to build the Nokia brand, not the Symbian brand.

    Which means in turn the genius of Symbian OS - object-oriented from the bootstrap up is just gonna be trashed to make way for traditional kernels along with all the other clever OO O/Ss from the past few decades. Nokia are sailing their Titanic, but the officers jumped ship before it was launched.

  2. nemo20000

    Fail snatched from the jaws of FTW

    Where did it all go wrong? Well, probably when it was all spun off from Psion – EPOC (as it was) had a great UI.

  3. Tom Chiverton 1


    And that's why Nokia is doing MeeGo - due out in consumer ready versions around the time S4 fails...

  4. Carlos.

    OS or UI?

    Symbian as an OS is actually pretty good; for all those doomsayers telling us how useless it is, I'd point to the fact that it multitasks very well (actually, *incredibly* well, given how restrictive Nokias hardware is), and does a lot, if not all, of the things that iOS and Android phones do.

    What lets it down is the UI, which is dated, and is shown up by the iPhone and android UI's

    Indicative of this is a shell called SPB, which is available for Symbian S60 v5, which takes away the need for the awful Symbian UI, and replaces it with a much slicker, more intuitive UI

    I had a conversation with Lee Williams this morning, and he admitted he had never used or looked at SPB shell. I think thats pretty indicative of Symbian as a whole: @don't look at the competition, just keep doing what we do@, and to that end.S^3 doesn't seem to be a huge step forward from S60 v5.

    It is very clear that Nokias handsets, and choice of internals, over the last 2 years have severely crippled any Symbian evolution within the smartphone market.

    But, maybe, Nokia don't want to chase the smartphone market........maybe they want to sell millions of S60v3 and S60v5 handsets in the emerging markets? A company that started making rubber boots and ended up as the dominant mobile manufacturer is no stranger to diversification and change, surely?

    Who knows where the future lies, but I'd really like to see 3 major players in the mobile OS market, and I'd like to see 2 of them being a bit more open than iOS.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      An interesting penultimate point

      Symbian can run on pretty slow hardware and still give a good experience. Android needs more Ooomph, and Apple are not interested in the low end market.

      Smartphones are a small part of the market - selling lots and lots of cheap phones makes more money than fewer smartphones (although not by much I think nowadays). Nokia can make cheaper hardware and use Symbian to get the same effect as more expensive HW and Android.

      Todays smartphones are tomorrows mid tier, and the futures low end, but for the moment, low end means no Apple and not much Android. That leaves Symbian (and Bada - ha ha), and the homegrown stuff.

      1. shane fitzgerald

        End game

        I agree. It looks like nokia will release the N8 at quite a low price point where it will totally undercut iPhone/android devices with far higher spec hardware albeit with S^3. But I know the choice of the mass market when faced with low contract/free etc will be N8 if they get this right.

        So if they can't compete with the high end market they can always do what nokia do best - destroy it and turn it into a low profit / high volume mass market. Of course they still have meego devices to come so this isn' t the plan perhaps. But if it was it would be wouldn't care but apple would be fecked.

  5. Conrad Longmore

    Symbian was dying anyway..

    Nokia knew that Symbian was a dead-end, which is why they finally promoted their skunkworks Maemo project to a phone. Symbian was never written with today's handsets in mind.. they are much better served with Unix-type derivative like Android, iOS, LiMo or Maemo.

    But then Nokia killed Maemo too... the N900 is the first and last Maemo smartphone. MeeGo isn't really ready, Symbian is downshifting to cheaper devices and suddenly Nokia have no OS to run on high-end smartphones.

    Perhaps Nokia should swallow its pride and flog an Android phone alongside their other handsets. Shucks, people might even buy Windows Phone 7 if it had a Nokia badge. But Nokia is one of the worst for "not invented here" syndrome..

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Possibly related factoid:

    Nokia is also still looking for a "principal engineer" who is to develop the SDK for its MeeGo venture with intel. I think they have something of a personnel problem along with a vision problem. So far I've seen a lot of apologetic good intentions from symbian. But what is nokia's stance with it, really, when it's also betting on MeeGo?

  7. Mage Silver badge


    Smart phones Meego

    Feature phones Symbian ^4

    Apple has pretty GUI, but all are poor phones. For you know, phoning.

  8. Anton Ivanov

    Means to what end?

    Symbian may be ugly, but it runs OK on phones with a much lower BOM than the touchscreen flagships. As far as the mid-tier and low-end phones Symbian is likely to end up being the only game in town very soon (with only Samsung/Bada contesting it there). This can allow Nokia to increase margins there while the margins at the top drop.

  9. fch

    OS and UI ...

    ... by historical experience, are more tightly coupled than academics imply.

    Think of what happened to UNIX due to the X Window System's "no policy" policy. Everyone uses X, but to this very day there's no identifiable / recognizable user interface standard for UNIX/Linux. History of the UNIX GUI has so many dead ends and winding roads: NeWS, Display Postscript, Athena, Motif, OpenLook, IRIS GL, HP OpenView, twm, mwm, whatever-wm, CDE, Gnome, KDE, freedesktop, ... makes you wonder why the UNIX desktop revolution never happened.

    That in mind, think of SymbianOS user interfaces now. Psion's original, then techview, S60, S80, S90, UIQ, MOAP, and quite probably a few more specific to other handset vendors / operators. Yes, it's all SymbianOS underneath. No, it's not a user experience that'd make you form a bond with the "platform".

    Nokia's acquisition of TrollTech's Qt opened up a unique opportunity there, namely to ditch some historical garbage associated with the monstrosity that's S60 and put an interface and interface framework onto Symbian that has proven it's adaptability/flexibility many times over.

    Please don't just bolt another add-on onto that S60 tumor. Start cutting the cancer out.

  10. Thomas 4

    Psion ftw

    Evolution was not kind to EPOC. Sure the first few Communicator handhelds (e.g 9210 and 9300) were pretty decent phones with decent UIs but the latest iterations have been garbage.

  11. O

    Symbian Still the Best O/S by miles

    ... What lets it down is a dated GUI, and until we get to ^4 a difficult to develop for default platform API.

    The actual O/S itself is lightyears ahead of Android, iOS or anything else on the market. Both multitasking and power management are vastly better than any other smartphone O/S on the market. It's also one of the most efficient in terms of extracting every last ounce of performance from hardware ... which sadly seems to have served as an excuse for Nokia to go cheapo on this front.

    I, and thousands or millions more like me, won't be considering anything other than Symbian smartphones in the near future. Simply because of the incredible battery life, stability and multi-tasking. In these realms, particularly the former, they have no competitor. Bada is nearest, but miles off.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      I too will continue to buy Symbian phones for the same reasons and because they are the best value for money. The 5800 did everything the iPhone and much, much more for half the price. I couldn't care less about a slick UI as long as it works and the price is right.

    2. Cameron Colley

      Another thumbs up for Symbian.

      While not the most exciting phone in the world my now-ageing E71 does everything modern smart phones do, and does so for longer on a single charge.

      Admittedly, if I had the money I may have bought an N900 by now -- but I know that, while it would be more fun than my current phone, I would miss the battery life if nothing else.

    3. chuckc

      Symbian best OS?

      I seriously believe you need some hard data to justify that claim. I know the OS, and I know its source code. I also know Linux's code, and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Linux is light years ahead in most fronts. Up until very recently Symbian didn't support SMP (a crucial change in any kernel that takes years to stabilize), and Linux has had it for a decade or so. The Symbian TCP/IP stack is single or dual threaded, and is just not scalable. The code is dated, over engineered, uses extremely old and now deprecated techniques for essential features such as memory allocation or error handling. The only microkernel alive apart from Symbian is QNX, and monolithic kernels have long won the kernel wars, so even the basic design is simply not up to date with technology. I could go on about using old exotic compilers, obsolete programming techniques (active objects and descriptors, I am looking at you) and overall not keeping up with the times.

      Linux is a great kernel, modern and proven, and that makes Android an OS with a solid foundation. About the mach+freebsd combo that powers iOS I know very little, but since it is a classic UNIX design and Mac OS X is a pretty good OS I wouldn't hesitate to think it is a great contender in the exciting world of kernel development.

  12. Citizen Kaned

    hmmm. title. etc

    we have nokia e72s here at work, after moving from various touchscreen HTCs and other winmo phones.

    the problems we had with those were that they are pain to use as a phone, crap for text and terrible reception.

    symbian is fugly as hell, akward to setup (why the fuck do i need to setup different connections myself? and why do they reset sometimes? surely a phone knows to use MMS for sending MMS etc etc.)

    BUT, it is also brilliant to use as a phone. leaps and bounds over iphones etc. texting is superb, touch screens seem great but are a royal pain sometimes. plus the battery lasts up to 4 days on these. imagine that on an iphone etc

  13. Anonymous Coward

    Rumor mill

    I little birdie close to Apple told me that Nokia and Apple will work together to produce smart phones based on iOS and hence the change in the OS name.

    Apple sales are tiny in comparison to Nokia's, but they know how to make a handset, something the iPhone has been pretty dire at.. ( i.e. making phone calls ). Now imagine the App store sales, licensing sales etc with the growth of the the platform once Nokia get involved.

    When I heard this my initial reaction is, what I'm guessing all of yours will be when reading this.. NO WAY !!, Apple don't license operating systems right...

    But consider what Nokia are, that they sold in 2009 450 Million Phones ( Albeit a majority of limited functionality handsets ), Apple sold 21 million. Combine those two with some sort of Jobsian approved specced Nokia iOS Smart phone and they start to combat what is the ultimate rise in the Android ecosystem. Otherwise, Apple's platform will be dwarfed into No.3 position, behind Symbian and Android.

    Take it or leave it, its just a rumor, but the source is solid and after the initial natural rejection, it does kind of make sense..

    Anon because you know why !!

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Whilst I do have my concerns about the future of Symbian at the hands of Nokia, let alone without Psion's involvement to provide the Apple-style innovation element, I remember just about every analyst in the 90s writing off Symbian from the moment the company was formed.

    They all said it would be inevitable that the only company who would end up dominating the mobile arena would be MS with WinCE.

    They even kept preaching this mantra whilst Symbian was enjoying an 80% market share and MS was (and still is) constantly re-branding its mobile platform and trying to re-invent itself as a wireless/mobile company.

    In truth, WinCE has gone nowhere (as was always going to happen), Symbian became the dominant OS provider after all (as was always going to happen) and the surprises in the industry and real knocks for Symbian came out of the blue - Apple and Google (which probably shouldn't have been surprises for analysts, if they ever really had a clue what they were inhaling fumes from the sacred flame and sharing their visions about).

    At least when the Roman visionaries got it so spectacularly wrong, they were thrown to the lions - and I wouldn't doubt for a minute that their horoscopes for that day said they'd meet a pretty stranger, come into some money and have a happy evening.

  15. Anonymous Coward


    Personally, I like the UI. It's simple, (fairly) consistent and doesn't get in the way (most of the time). For some reason these days people seem to think "pretty" == "good ui" - look at some of Samsung's failures for why that doesn't work... Series 60 has supports for themes if you want a "pretty" UI.

    I've never used the native Symbian C++ SDK but using J2ME on the devices is easy (probably because Symbian actually isn't involved...). Although I'll admit that a) the Nokia emulator is awful - assuming it'll even start, and b) there's plenty of little "oddities" that have to be worked around, but then that's par-for-the-course with Java really...

    If they want people to write more apps and games etc then just create a Java bridge to the core APIs so people aren't stuck with J2ME (which just causes more UI problems and restricts access to the hardware) and stop with the archaic weirdness involved with the C++ stuff which requires the learning of a large amount of specialised stuff just for Symbian. There was talk of porting SWT, I guess they gave up with that...

    The other thing the iPhone obviously does is make "difficult" tasks easy by removing all the options (as is Apple's way...) - Symbian leaves everything available to confuse people. The best thing they could do is to have a "simple" mode and an "advanced" mode - that's pretty easy to do (hide options, "wizards", bit of simple AI occasionally [if I have a WiFi connection, stop asking me if I want to use the cell network - just use the "best" one] etc) and would go a long way to making it seem easier to use.

    1. Dan 55 Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: UI

      "if I have a WiFi connection, stop asking me if I want to use the cell network - just use the "best" one] etc)"

      There's actually an option for that buried in the access point configuration app (actually several options for it, one for each access point then a global one), then later on another option in each app which connects to the Internet. A re-organisation of the configuration apps would go along way to stop people being scared by Symbian, it's something Nokia could have done while waiting for ^3 and ^4.

      It still beats the other OSes in terms of battery life, hardware efficiency, and multi-tasking, it's just the ugly duckling of mobile OSes, which is a shame as all most analysts know about is if it looks pretty or not.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Yes, the current Nokia/Symbian devices are terrible (Yes, you N97).

    Assuming (when they arrive) the new devices are as good as they are promised you would expect them to start selling more than they have been.

    It may be withering, but I wouldn't say it was dying.

  17. Eddy Ito Silver badge

    A title or two

    I have to agree with the others who say the current Symbian is really a wonderful OS for a phone. It isn't a gaming platform, finding anything is a folly and there are far too many keystrokes to set up anything but it will make phone calls for days.

    "gambling everything on the Palm Pre handset and new webOS - a bet that Palm decidedly lost."

    Not really. If that were true, they should easily be one of the top vendors. The bet that lost was on the marketing people they hired and partnering with Sprint, itself a third rate marketer at best. Those mistakes are sure signs that they are a good engineering company with absolutely no market sense whatever.

  18. Badwolf

    another Little Bird

    My little bird told me that Apple were considering making a play for Nokia next year

    So many little birdies flying around these days!

  19. Paul 75

    Ways to develop on Symbian

    Nowadays there are lots of ways to develop for Symbian - in native C++ with the ugly descriptors, cleanup stack, and leaves...but once you learn it, it works well, although it is somewhat verbose.

    J2ME, already mentioned by some posters, is supported on all S60 devices, and can run for the most part unaltered also on Nokia's S40 devices (as long as you don't have too much memory utilisation and know differences in camera handling, for example).

    QT will bring a huge salvation in application development for the platform with its really nice C++ APIs, with added advantage that the same apps should run on Meego also...and also in theory might cross compile to other platforms (PC, Linux, and I believe Mac is also on the cards), although I believe Nokia have grafted some phone-specific APIs on top of vanilla QT that won't port across (yet).

    One thing not yet mentioned is that Nokia have OpenC interfaces, with very posix-like APIs, so many C programs and libraries can just be recompiled. If you use Open GL for the UI then you should be in a good position since you don't need to use the crappy Avkon framework, which is admittedly, crappy.

    Maybe there are some other ways, but those are the ones I have used until now (there is also web runtime stuff, Flash, and Silverlight, but I don't know too much about that at the moment). So, you are rather spoiled for choice in a way, and developers from many backgrounds (C++, Java, C, Web) can find some tool to leverage for Symbian. Which is pretty impressive actually.

  20. Stinky


    Nokia doesn't have a plan, it has several plans. Meego. Maemo, S4. They just throw it over the fence and see what the dog likes most. Nokia already lost. Sure they sell more dumb phones then anyone, but you might as well replace dumb phone with transistor radio. In a five or ten years smart phones will be what customers are demanding, even in third world countries. In that time frame Nokia be putting dumb phones in boxes of cereal with NASCAR stickers on them.

    Nokia management is at fault here, more so the stock holders. They only hire Fins for top management positions which really limits their gene pool. When it comes to development Nokia should emulate their competitors- Google and Apple. Both of which have phone teams smaller then Nokia's janitorial department. The rules of the free market are rather Darwinian - adapt or die. Nokia chooses the latter.

    RIP Nokia

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    UI is not that bad just a bit clunky

    As a N97 S60v5 owner I have to say that the UI isn't that bad, yes its a little clunky at times with scroll bars when you use kinetic scrolling which if you decide to use them pull in the opposite direction to that expected and a few too many sub-menus with similar functions. However you get used to that after a few minutes and its not a problem. I actually prefer my N97 (now they have finally fixed the firmware so that it is finally the phone I bought) to the iPhone 3GS which I have used on occasions, I actually found that more counter-intuitive than S60v5 but saying that I am one of those weird folk who can use multiple OS'es and office applications on different platforms without fainting in confusion so maybe I don't represent the average phone user.

    Nokia are trying to improve the development environment with the move to QT but I can't help but think its too little too late and despite my general satisfaction with my phone when I am eventually out of contract in a years time I will almost certainly go Android as I see it getting better support and improving by leaps and bounds whilst Symbian doesn't have the momentum at present to attract developers looking to get rich quick and so is likely to continue to decline unless it manages to really reinvent itself and become a brand name in itself like Android and iOS.

    However it's all academic unless Nokia stop releasing great phones with broken firmware which initially get slated in reviews because of it and by the time they have fixed the firmware six or so months later and the phone meets its initial expectations nobody cares because the damage is done.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Gartner says ..

    Why don't Symbian hire Gartner to produce a `report' on the future success of the Symbian platform :)

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Developer tools for Symbian

    Downloaded them to take a look. They only seemed to work in Windows. Massive fail in 2010

    1. brendand

      Double standards

      Eh? So only working on Windows is a massive fail, but only working on Mac (XCode) isn't? Double standards. Anyway, massive effort is going into making them work on Linux too. For Nokia this was never a priority - for Symbian it most definitely is.

  24. Sirius Lee

    @carlos has point

    Among those trying to claim thought leadership the 'disruption' generated by iPhone and Android baed phones is always mentioned. Not just Nokia as in this article, but also Microsoft.

    As Apple and Google have shown, its really not difficult to break into the mobile phone market. That is, there's a low barrier to entry. The challenge is maintaining revenues and you do that by supporting the cash cows which are in markets that are not easy to enter.

    Both companies have huge revenues based on such markets. For Nokia its bread and butter phone and a vast reach. For Microsoft its Office, Windows and Window Server.

    So it comes as no surprise to me that Nokia it pushing Symbian in a direction it believes will help it's business not reacting to what is really a small market share in the relatively niche market (from a global perspective) for smart phones with a nicer UI. I've Nokia 5800. It's cheap, it serves me just fine and I guess Nokia knows that I'm not alone.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      Smartphone reality distortion field

      iPhone and Android phones currently are generating a reality distortion field to which journalist seem to be especially susceptible. If you were to believe much of what is written you'd think that any phone not running iOS or Android is doomed.

      Three things to remember.

      1) Not everyone needs an iPhone or Android phone

      2) Not everyone wants an iPhone or Android phone

      3) Not everyone can afford an iPhone or Android phone

      This leaves a large market for Symbian and its competitors. Medium and low end phones aren't necessarily former highly end phones. Can iOs and Android be used with anything other than a touch screen phone? Also not everyone likes touchscreen phones.

      One size does not fit all.

  25. apleszko
    Dead Vulture

    Nokia is sinking with Symbian, Maemo and Meego won't change anything...

    RIP NOKIA, soon their devices will be competing with Made in China cheap phones... I was a loyal consumer for years and at first there were no discussion that Nokia had both the best HW and SW.

    Now the HW is getting worst each year compared to competitors, not even the battery life is the same anymore...

    And in the SW area Nokia just lost its hand and now it is just too late to recover the time lost!! As the article says Symbian is not likely to catch up iOS and Android. Some may say Nokia is betting on Meego with Intel, but that was said also about that cr*p Maemo O.S. which didn't last even half a year with the Nokia N900 model. It was just born dead....

    Meego may have Intel support but that's just because they are interested to sell Atom processors!! I wouldn't be surprised if Intel join Android ship in a couple of months... after all the smart decision is always to go with the winning team, and Nokia is now definitely on the looser side.

    1. Lance 3


      Maemo was born dead? Maemo is based on Hildon that Nokia created. Maemo dates back to their Internet tablets that were released in 2005. This was long before the iPhone. The N900 was the first to offer phone functionality.

      You do realize that Maemo gives you root access right? Android is nearly as open.

      1. apleszko

        RE: Wrong

        I know the Maemo history and Nokia threw it on the trash when moving to Meego... N900 is a lousy phone and a good tablet, but in the end it competes with smartphones as well... the computer or phone discussion is just an excuse for not investing anymore on N900... root access?? well, although that's fun it is only for geeks, not for end users. The same root access which makes it a real open device is also the reason why Nokia failed terrible on attracting professional developer companies, most applications for N900/Maemo are developed by the open source community, and that's not a profitable business for who pay their bills by writing code...

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