Symbian is dead. Long live Symbian

[Is Symbian coming to the end of its shelf life? Research Director Andreas Constantinou dissects the motivations behind Nokia’s strategy and why Symbian is getting a new lease of life]

Only two short years and four months since it was announced, the Symbian Foundation is shutting down. With it dies Nokia’s second effort at creating a licensable application platform for mobile phones (the first one was S60) and to compete against Android. While Nokia is shunning to make the closure official, the last OEM supporters – Samsung and Sony Ericsson – have officially killed plans for Symbian products (see here and here) and Symbian staff are being given redundancy notices and making career moves on LinkedIn. [update: On November 8, it was announced that Nokia will regain control of the Symbian governance process and that the Symbian Foundation will be reduced to a licensing team]

The writing has been on the wall since early 2010, when Nokia took out a €500 million loan to (among other things) help sustain funding into the Symbian Foundation, whose membership fees were due to be renewed in April 2010. Symbian Foundation relied on OEMs shipping handsets to take on the operational costs at the tune of 5 million GBP per OEM. The final blow came with the departure of SyFo’s CEO and co-architect, Lee Williams.

The death of Symbian
Symbian Ltd., the OEM-backed consortium that funded Symbian development between 1999-2008 had long been suffering from an imbalance of power and poor strategic decision-making. There were three things wrong with Symbian Ltd.

Firstly, with Nokia owning 48% of Symbian Ltd. shares, the Finnish OEM had been driving the agenda at Symbian to the detriment of its OEM partners, Secondly, since the UI was severed from the base OS in 2001, Nokia had been squeezing the value out of the Symbian operating system and into its own S60 UI, middleware and applications suite platform. This meant that other OEMs had to spend considerable effort integrating Symbian with their own UIQ or MOAP layers and filling the gaps that Nokia left – effectively leading to handsets which were expensive to build.

Thirdly, with the decision to have Symbian baseporting owned by the OEM and not Symbian Ltd, each manufacturer had to spend millions to get Symbian ported onto the hardware platform, in essence reinventing the wheel. While this naturally gave Nokia the edge in producing more Symbian models more often, it meant that for other OEMs most of the budget was spent in baseporting (i.e. getting the phone to work), rather than in differentiation. In 2007 Symbian Ltd. was desperately in need of a major governance re-engineering operation.

The coup de grace arrived with the launch of Google’s OHA in November 2007, signaling two major changes in the phone industry: firstly, that open-source development (inspired by mobile Linux) was now supported by a major cash-rich backer, and not an operator consortium (LiMo) or a loose congregation of Linux system integrators and design houses (Azingo, Purple Labs, WindRiver and Montavista). Secondly, that zero royalties were now the norm and operating system development was turning from a revenue generator to a loss leader. With Android changing the rules of the game, Nokia knew that for Symbian to compete in this new world, it had to be both open source and zero royalty.

Seven months on from the Android disclosure, Nokia announced that it would be buying the remaining Symbian shares outright, paying up the equivalent of 2.5 years of royalties or 2x the revenues of Symbian Ltd – a paltry evaluation for the top smartphone OS. For Nokia it was a financial and strategic move; it made financial sense because Nokia would slash its Symbian maintenance costs (from 100 million GBP of annual license fees to 5 million GBP of annual membership fees) by sharing the SyFo costs with other OEMs on the board. It made strategic sense because with the ownership change, Nokia convinced Sony Ericsson and DoCoMo to abandon UIQ and MOAP respectively and marginalised Windows Mobile which was still royalty-based. Meanwhile, Nokia could still exert the majority influence into the Symbian roadmap by employing most engineers and most package owners (effectively well into 2010).

In retrospect, Nokia failed with both S60 and Symbian Foundation by insisting on a winner-takes-all mentality, i.e. taking roadmap control away from its OEM development partners which long-term destroyed the value in the partnerships. This winner-takes-all-mentality is nothing new; it was already harming Symbian as we had argued back in 2005. The full open sourcing of the Symbian platform in February 2010 or the cute playful new brand did not succeed in stopping neither the developer defection (see our Developed Economics report) or the OEM defection from Symbian.

With Nokia shares performing miserably over the last four years, the Finn-led board took the bold decision to oust Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo and bring in a Canadian, Stephen Elop to turn the boat around. 41 days into the job, Elop announced the cutting of 1,800 jobs at Nokia and the adoption of Qt as the main development environment on top of Symbian handsets.

For Nokia, Qt presents both an opportunity and a challenge. On one hand it’s the most capable cross-platform application environment today boasting reach across mobile, PC and STB – plus depth with Qt providing a complete API wrapper on top of the native OS (and much wider API coverage than GTK to which it’s often unfairly compared). On the other hand Nokia has notoriously mismanaged the Trolltech acquisition of January 2008, with the troll CEO, CTO and key engineers abandoning ship. Meanwhile, Nokia has created a Qt break across Symbian and MeeGo UIs and not managed to fully deploy Qt on Symbian 2.5 years after the acquisition (note how Qt Mobility APIs are still way incomplete).

Long live Symbian
With Symbian Foundation soon to be diagnosed dead, the rumours about Nokia replacing Symbian are rampant. Many industry pundits are prognosticating that Nokia will adopt Android – which in 2010 is going stronger than ever – or Windows Phone 7, which comes with the freshest UI since the widget based paradigm popularised by the Jesus phone. Despite the prophecies, Symbian will live on for many years to come. As the French expression goes, Le Roi est mort. Vive le Roi.

There are two reasons why Nokia won’t be abandoning Symbian anytime soon.

Firstly, Symbian is tightly integrated with Nokia’s variant management process. Nokia is the only OEM that has mastered variant management, i.e. being able to generate 100s of variants (SKUs) at the press of a button. That’s how Nokia can deliver 100s of customised smartphones to operators and retailers around the world. This variant management process is ‘hardcoded’ to Symbian, which means that replacing Symbian would seriously compromise Nokia’s ability to cater to operator requirements around the world and it would seriously hurt its market share.

Secondly, Nokia’s economies of scale rely on in-house control of core components, and the operating systems is one of them. If Nokia were to license Windows Phone it would reduce its differentiation to industrial design and Ovi alone. In the case of Android, Nokia would have to branch Android (and to sustain the cost of Android development), port Qt on Android which means another 12+ months for a stable implementation. While this remains a long-term possibility, it is still a gamble when Nokia’s priority should be to focus on killer devices and not a killer OS. Qualcomm’s BREW MP is another candidate but only when Qualcomm has a good developer platform story and that means waiting for BREW MP to launch a web-based platform akin to RIM’s WebWorks.

Symbian may no longer be a symbiotic system, but will live within Nokia for many years to come as the workhorse under the hood of Nokia smartphones.

The King is dead, long live the King.

– Andreas
You should follow me on twitter: @andreascon

Breaking the 500 million barrier of mobile software

[Which are the most ubiquitous mobile software products out there? Marketing Manager Matos Kapetanakis opens up our 5th edition of the 100 Million Club, the watchlist of embedded software products and talks about the really big numbers of mobile software.]

Welcome to the H2 2009 edition of the 100 Million Club, the semi-annual watchlist of mobile software products that have been embedded in more than 100 million mobile devices since their release. Despite the apparent opportunity in the one-billion-a-year handset market, very few software companies have managed to overcome the commercial and technical challenges inherent in the mobile industry.

Key highlights in this H2 2009 edition:

– “The cumulative number of shipments of all the 100 Million Club software products up to the end of 2009 is 24.6 billion – an 11% increase since the previous half”

– “The estimated 250 million cumulative shipments for Apple’s WebKit show that it is fast becoming a de facto browser platform.”

– “BlackBerry is the next smartphone platform, after Symbian, that will break through the 100 million shipments barrier.”

What’s new in H2 2009?
So, what major changes have we seen since our previous update?

First off we’re happy to welcome three new entrants to the Club: ARM, Mimer and Numonyx have joined, adding three new middleware products to our watchlist. Mimer has just broken the 100 million barrier with its SQL database engine, while ARM brings us Mali-JSR184, a 3D graphics engine for wireless devices. The Flash Data Integrator by Numonyx is already ahead of the game, having been shipped in more than 900 million devices.

We have also had to remove three software products that have long been part of the Club. For different reasons, Mobile BAE by Beatnik and Picsel’s File Viewer are no longer part of the 100 Million Club, while Nokia’s Series 60 OS has been incorporated in the Symbian OS.

(click to download)

Growth in the 100 Million Club
The H2 2009 edition of the 100 Million Club is comprised of 30 software products by 26 companies. The total number of shipments of all 30 products, up to the end of 2009, comes to 24.6 billion – an 11% increase since the previous half.

In the previous edition, the Club featured 15 software products that exceeded 500 million shipments, 6 of which had also broken through the 1 billion barrier. The H2 2009 edition features 17 products with more than 500 million sales, 7 of which have surpassed 1 billion shipments. In other words, for the first time the majority of the products featured in the 100 Million Club have over 500 million shipments.

In the second half of 2009, CAPS by Scalado and OKL4 by Open Kernel Labs managed to break through the 500 million barrier, while Myriad Group’s messaging client and Nokia’s Series 40 OS now have more than 1 billion shipments each.

Category leaders: apps, browsers, middleware and operating systems
Quickoffice wins by default in the embedded applications category, since it’s the only embedded application featured in the 100 Million Club.

Adobe is still number one in the application environments category, with Flash/Flash Lite having been embedded in more than 1.3 billion devices up to the end of 2009. The growth of Flash Lite has decelerated significantly from 43% (1H09) to 15% (2H09) as share of devices sold with the software embedded; however the pace should be picking up pace again with Flash shipments later in 2010.

Myriad Group, whose browser has almost twice as many shipments as the other category products combined, dominates the browser market.

In the middleware category things are not that clear, due to the diversity of products. In absolute numbers, the messaging client by Myriad Group has the most shipments (1.2B) and vRapid Mobile by Red Bend shows the highest of growth over the second half of 2009. UI software is also highly penetrated within mobile devices, led by graphics engines by Ikivo, Scalado and The Astonishing Tribe which are at or around the 500 million mark.

The operating system market features 6 products that have been embedded in more than 1 billion devices. It’s worth noting that mass-appeal operating systems like OSE, Nucleus and recently Series 40 have cumulative shipments numbering in the billions, while BREW has just broken past the 500 million mark. In contrast, most major smartphone platforms – Android, OSX, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry – apart from Symbian have yet to reach 100 million shipments.

Finally, the input engines category features two products, both by Nuance inherited from the past acquisitions of Tegic and Zi Corp. As is evident in the chart, T9/XT9 is by far the most prominent, having been embedded in a staggering 4.8 billion mobile devices up to the end of the second half of 2009.

100 Million Club facts and trends

Two companies account for 38% of shipments: Only two companies have multiple software products included in the 100 Million Club, each company featuring three products. The cumulative number of shipments of these two companies is 9.5 billion, representing 38% of all 100 Million Club products’ shipments up to the end of H2 2009. The software products are Myriad Group’s Browser, messaging client and Jbed and Nuance’s T9/XT9, eZiText and VSuite.

WebKit on the rise: We estimate that up to the end of 2009 WebKit, the open source browser engine, has been embedded in more than 250 million devices. WebKit owes most of its market penetration to Nokia (Symbian shipments with the Series 40 contribution picking up), while its recent adoption by RIM can only accelerate its market penetration.

Top revenue models: In this edition, we asked the 100 Million Club members to provide us with the top two revenue models for their products. The responses revealed that the most common revenue models for embedded software are per-unit royalties,followed by NRE (non-recurring engineering fees) for product integration or customisation. Despite the tight profit margins, handset OEMs and network operators are still paying for software on a per-unit basis, with the ‘paradigm shift’ to per-active user revenue models taking longer than most would have expected.

What’s in stock for the 100 Million Club
Our watchlist continues to grow, as more products make it past 100 million shipments. Blackberry should be entering the Club in the next edition (H1 2010), with OSX, Windows Mobile and the much younger Android lagging a further 6-18 months behind.

The bigger picture of mobile software is very different than the industry hype would have us think.

– Matos