While it experiments with Maemo, Nokia says it is 100 percent committed to the Symbian operating system.
Next to the Symbian Foundation itself, no one has been a bigger proponent of the platform than Nokia. Symbian and Nokia have become practically synonymous since Nokia spent just under $400 million of its own funds to found the operating system’s standards body, the Symbian Foundation, in June 2008. The operating system is found on all of Nokia’s smartphones and even some of its feature phones. It’s also the most prolific operating system in the world.
“The fact of the matter is that a substantial amount of our product line is based on Symbian,” says David Rivas, Nokia’s vice president of technology management. Rivas handled the operational aspects of buying the intellectual property behind the Symbian OS and also led the effort to create the Symbian Foundation.
“We’re building good devices based on Symbian, and the technology in Maemo and Symbian devices is roughly compatible,” he says. “We are 100 percent committed to Symbian in the future.”
Nokia is solidly affiliated with Symbian despite occasional flirtations with Maemo. The company says it will only be releasing one Maemo-based device over the next year and recently announced a planned overhaul of the Symbian user interface.
“Nokia will continue to use Symbian in a great volume of their phones, but if they have any hope of creating phones that meet expectations of how a smartphone should look and operate, that operating system of choice may just be Maemo,” says ABI Research analyst Kevin Burden.
Burden argues that Nokia’s Symbian legacy is holding it back from developing cuttingedge devices capable of competing against the likes of Android. “Their first mover advantage was great for the first few years, but it’s difficult to take an operating system like that and revamp it to new looks and new styles of innovation,” he says.
Symbian is just not cut out for the job, argues Burden. The reason, he says, is that it’s just too popular for its own good.
Symbian-based handsets comprise the vast majority of open-source handset shipments. According to Jumpier Research, shipments of open source handsets are expected to hit 106 million this year, 87 million of which will be based on the Symbian operating system. The firm expects Symbian handsets will comprise 81 percent of the open-source market in 2014 with 180 million shipments.
The Symbian operating system must support a huge range of capabilities at various price points. In essence, it has to be everything to everyone. It can’t be specialized for the needs of high-end smartphones without a detrimental effect on lower-end models, effectively limiting its development.
Maemo, on the other hand, has no such baggage. Maemo was developed for Nokia’s Internet tablets back in 2005. The Linux-based operating system is optimized for the computing used on mobile Internet devices, making it ideal for handling the increasingly complex capabilities of smartphones. Maemo is also open source, an app development advantage it shares with both Android and Symbian.
Back at Nokia, Rivas admits that there’s a risk of a lowest common denominator effect because of the wide variety of devices running on the Symbian operating system. While he insists that “from a capabilities perspective, there’s no difference in the operating systems,” he also says there’s a lot of developer momentum behind the Maemo operating system.
He argues that while Symbian was developed to manage requests of operators, the “value proposition behind Maemo is not about customizing for operators. It’s much more about experimenting with new technology… and leveraging services with the Maemo device.”
Yankee Group analyst Andy Castonguay says that Nokia’s occasional forays into Maemo-based handsets are a return to experimentation with design and device innovation. “Three to five years ago, Nokia took risks in device design,” says Castonguay, citing the now-defunct Nokia NGage mobile gaming device. “With the departure of Frank Nuovo and the increasing focus on services, a lot of that experimental spirit left the company.”
He says that increased competition has pushed the manufacturer to return to a more forward-looking approach in terms of innovation. “[The Maemo operating system] definitely helps them think through and test out different types of interfaces within a very vocal community, which the Maemo community has a reputation of being,” he says.
Nokia’s Rivas agrees with Castonguay’s assessment. “It makes sense for us to do technology experiments from time to time,” he says.
Castonguay also points out that Maemo is a relatively small player in the smartphone market, a disincentive to developers seeking to get their inventions to as large an audience as possible. Nokia says it will launch just 10 smartphones this year, half the amount it launched last year.
Castonguay concedes that as a user interface, Symbian’s “native capabilities aren’t as user-friendly as the most recent operating system from Android.”
However, he doesn’t expect that to last long. “Based on the timelines the Symbian Foundation has set forth, by the end of 2010, you’ll see products in the market with a significantly improved user interface,” says Castonguay, comparing Symbian to Google’s Android operating system.
As for all the hullabaloo around Symbian and Maemo, Rivas says it will settle down over time: “There’s a preoccupation around the various operating systems right now.”