When Nokia bought out Psion's shares in the Symbian OS for smartphones it inspired a lot of negative comment.
- Psion's shares fell 32 percent on the sale, as investors said it sold for too low a price and lost a major part of its value.
- Application developers howled that the Symbian platform would lose its independence now Nokia owns more than 60 percent of Symbian. This would destroy the cross-industry support, weaken Symbian and make it proprietary to Nokia.
Both these reactions were understandable. Symbian was originally a Psion vision. It evolved from the EPOC operating system which Psion created in 1998 for its Series 5 handhelds. The mobile industry (initially Ericsson and Nokia) adopted it in response to the threat (at the time rather vague) that Microsoft would get ahead in smartphones.
Other handset vendors got on board Symbian in short order, including Sony Ericsson, Panasonic, Samsung, Sendo and Fujitsu. The Symbian company was owned jointly by them and created a common platform to develop on.
This week's announcement seems to pull the rug from under all that, demolishing the independence of the Symbian group and taking away the most valuable thing about Psion.
But it only looks that way if you haven't been paying attention.
Psion doesn't make the Series 5: it wants Linux
Sorry to state the obvious, but Psion has moved on. The Series 5 is only a happy memory for those who used it in its pomp.
The company now makes, through its Teklogix subsidiary, a wireless notebook. Launched in October 2003, the Netbook Pro outraged Psion followers because it did not use the Symbian operating system. Instead, it used Microsoft's Windows CE .Net.
This was such a shock that a petition called for Psion to put Symbian on the Netbook Pro (and has 2000 signatures at the time of writing). Meanwhile Microsoft fans publicly gloated about Microsoft's "manifest destiny".
All this was definitely more heat than light. Psion Teklogix explained carefully that this was a handheld computer intended for a market familiar with Windows and requiring stylus-based input. It didn't show Psion breaking faith with Symbian and it didn't show any operating system had any manifest destiny. It wasn't a smartphone, so why should it have a smartphone operating system?
Psion wants money to develop the NetBook. If it puts any of that money into offering a different operating system, it is most likely to be Linux, at least according to commentator Guy Kewney.
The investors were hoping that Symbian might have been headed for an IPO, thus generating more money, but I doubt that was going to happen. Symbian has a lot of strategic importance but it has one major customer and is making a loss (though expected to break even this year). The days are gone when you can manage a hugely successful IPO on those kind of numbers.
In the long term, Psion is better off without the connection to Symbian. It did its part in starting the ball rolling and has no more technical input into Symbian (which, incidentally, should have made it obvious that last year's rumours that Nokia wanted to buy Psion to get control of Symbian were a bit wide of the mark).
Now the smartphone market is established, Symbian does not need Psion any more.
Symbian can handle itself within Nokia
But what about Nokia control? Firstly, with an active market, the shareholders aren't the only people with control. We have moved on from 1998, when a smartphone was just a theoretical possibility, to a world where there is a real market. Within that market, Symbian is believed to have shipped around 6 million units last year and Microsoft only 200,000. With its dominance of Symbian, Nokia has the greatest share of all smartphones.
If Symbian is swayed by anyone, it is most likely to be its customers, in which case Nokia already has all the influence it needs. Not only does it make the majority of the world's smartphones, its Symbian-based Series 60 platform is used by several other handset makers such as Sendo, to create products for their own markets.
Motorola left the Symbian consortium last year but it has since brought out another Symbian phone, though it is looking at Linux as well.
Fujitsu is not a shareholder but has plenty of influence on Symbian as it is a major customer - supplying NTT Docomo with three Symbian products for its FOMA (Freedom Of Mobile Access) network.
So handset manufacturers have already decided to use Symbian despite Nokia's dominance. They are reliant on a competitor for a key component of their products but those using Nokia's Series 50 user interface were already in that position.
Operators might be more cautious but NTT Docomo has blessed both Symbian and Linux as operating systems for its future phones.
Symbian has succeeded in its first goal, to create a smartphone platform that can keep Microsoft from instant domination of the smartphone market. As the smartphone market comes into being, it is becoming more complex. It is now clearer what kind of ecosystem Symbian needs around it.
Firstly, the Symbian environment has had to become richer. Although application developers need a single platform to work to, they can't quite have a single platform to deliver on, because there are differences between smartphones. While in desktop computers, a single user interface could be good enough for pretty much everyone (leaving aside our objections to monopolies) the same is not true of a phone,
So alongside Symbian a set of platforms have evolved with full user interfaces for different types of products.
- Nokia's Series 60 is popular, obviously, and is being put in products by Sendo, Siemens, Samsung and Panasonic, as well as Nokia
- In Japan, Fujitsu's interface for FOMA has a big potential in the world's biggest 3G market
- Symbian's own UIQ interface, created by Symbian subsidiary UIQ, and in use by Sony Ericsson, Motorola and Benq.
It makes sense to wonder what happens to UIQ. With control of Symbian, Nokia now effectively owns two user interface platforms for Symbian. Does it need both?
Well, yes. UIQ is a different kind of interface. As seen in the Sony Ericsson P900, it is more pen-based and suited to devices at the PDA end of the smartphone spectrum. Sony Ericsson is a big enough customer to support the continued development of the UIQ interface - and others will join in.
Even Microsoft appreciates the need for different user interfaces for different devices. In 2003 Microsoft rebranded the Pocket PC OS as Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PCs (now also available in a Phone Edition version which includes phone functions). Its Smartphone operating system became Windows Mobile 2003 for Smartphones. However, unifying the names is an attempt to achieve by branding what Symbian has done by engineering, says the Symbian camp.
The world changesIn the tech industry nothing stays the same for long. When it formed, Symbian had a different set of problems to deal with than it does now. Nokia's ownership is not ideal but not a critical problem for it. And the absence of Psion only makes clear that the role of Symbian is different now, to what it was five years ago.
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