Symbian is dead; long live Symbian?

One of those recent pieces of technological news which caught my eye was that Nokia’s N8 smartphone will be the last of its Nseries range to use the venerable Symbian operating system, and that future phones in the range will use Meego, a Linux variant previously used on the Nokia N900 and its internet tablets. The news hardly comes as a surprise. It seems that the Nseries has finally outgrown Symbian, and with smartphones continuing to resemble mobile computers more than simple telephones, the powerful Linux basis of MeeGo (formerly Maemo) will serve to assist Nokia’s own efforts in this market.

MeeGo is a remarkably flexible operating system, possessing more freedom of use and areas for customisation than many of its competitors. It also takes advantage of the growing power of new smartphones better than Symbian, with a full variant of Mozilla Firefox possessing full Flash capabilities, and the ability to run fully-fledged desktop Linux applications. In contrast, Symbian didn’t exactly acquit itself perfectly in direct contest with the iPhone and Android-based phones which have occupied the higher end of the smartphone market, with a touch-screen interface which might not be as unresponsive as some critics have suggested, but which certainly isn’t as “thumbable” as the iPhone. It’s clear that Symbian was made for a phone with buttons – which are becoming secondary to recent smartphones.

Some commentators have suggested in the past that Symbian’s time is through, and with it disappearing from the Nseries after the N8, it would seem that this viewpoint has some credence. It seems an awfully short-sighted comment to me, ignoring some of the key factors of Symbian as things stand currently. Symbian is still by far the most popular smartphone operating system in the world, and weak sales in the United States don’t reflect Symbian’s success in the rest of the world. In fact, last year, Symbian-based phones outsold the iPhone, Android and BlackBerry platforms combined. That hardly seems to me like the swan-song of a dying platform.

The fact is that Symbian still has some technical advantages which will grant it an extra lease of life. It may not be able to compete directly with the flashy experience of the iPhone or Maemo, but Symbian is a lot more lightweight, not requiring a battery-draining powerhouse to run. For currently extant phone series like the Eseries, some things are more important than the ability to run videos and play games, and the less substantial basis of Symbian will serve these phones much better than MeeGo or any other of its competitors.

There’s another market where Symbian may thrive, and one that hasn’t really been tapped by any competing platform. The iPhone may be the device that comes to most people’s minds when they think about smartphones, but it’s expensive, and so are its direct rivals. Not everybody can afford one of these expensive devices, and the smartphone market will have to open itself up to less costly devices without compromising too much on the features. There are two mobile platforms which seem ready to provide smartphone capacity to affordable devices: Android and Symbian, and only one of these has the weight of the world’s largest mobile-phone company behind it.

We’ve already seen some of the attempts by Nokia to tap into this market; the 5530 and 5800 XpressMusic models and the 5230 are examples. It’ll take a while yet before new devices slot into the market currently held by non-smartphone models, but Nokia at least have more momentum than their competitors there. It’ll be interesting to watch.