It's clear that Symbian rules the smartphone world. But it's equally clear that there's a widespread opinion that this will not last.
Currently, there are more than 126 million Symbian phones out there; it shipped about 50 million smartphones in 2006, and its share of the smartphone market is 72 percent, according to Canalys. There are fewer Windows Mobile phones out there, and Windows still has less than 20 percent of new sales in the smartphone market, according to most estimates.
And yet, there's a widespread perception that, whatever goes on now, Windows Mobile will eventually dominate. Symbian people don't like to hear this, but outside their world, it's very common to hear statements like "I don't really like Windows Mobile, but I'm familiar with the interface and it synchs with all my desktop apps."
Windows Mobile certainly has the potential to create a reassuring monoculture (something which we might find scary in other ways). But it isn't necessarily better, even at linking to Microsoft apps.
Other eventual Microsoft victories
But people can remember what happened in similar sectors. Despite arriving late, and with an inferior product, Microsoft usually wins out. People laughed at the suggestion that Microsoft's Windows could ever compete with the graphical Macintosh - a system that would be pretty much wiped out now, if not for Microsoft's application support, and the iPod factor.
In LANs, no one believed Microsoft's LAN Manager or Windows for Workgroups could beat the crushing dominance of Novell's Netware. But eventually Redmond produced products that worked, and the opposition wilted.
Consider the early days of Pocket PC - or Windows CE - it was so poor compared with Palm's operating system that it was dismissed completely as a PDA contender - and it eventually pushed Palm in that market.
The first Windows phones - for instance the first Orange SPV - were also pretty useless. Yet now, Palm - which moved to smartphones - has had to adopt Windows Mobile. Successive versions of Windows Mobile (the latest is Windows Mobile 6) have improved noticeably.
Symbian's strength is diversity
Symbian people say this misses the point of Symbian. Smartphones are only part of the story, as Symbian is not a single thing, but a platform intended to allow vendors and operators to differentiate. Windows Mobile is on smartphones, and only on smartphones, while Symbian allows vendors to create simple featurephones, specialised music phones, and other devices, as well. Symbian can, they say, take on limited sectors because its broad appeal gives it a greater critical mass. The OS now has a Posix interface to allow developers to easily port applications from other platforms.
There are more Symbian phones sold than iPods, so Symbian has no fear from the the iPhone, either.
The PDA and other markets where Microsoft eventually triumphed were smaller than the PC market. But the phone industry is much bigger - there are more than a billion mobile phones in the world - a strong position in that market should establish a player better than a stranglehold on IT.
The US phone factor
It's also the case that the global figures really don't show a swing to Windows Mobile at the moment. But they do show some interesting chinks in the Symbian story.
As this image from a Symbian presentation shows, Symbian (the orange area) has a continued healthy dominance in smartphones round the world, but with two intriguing gaps, which become even more interesting when compared with earlier versions of the same graph (we apologise for the size of this image -- the full size version in the Symbian presentation is better).
In China and Japan, Symbian is getting strong competition from Linux - although Symbian appears to have gained share back in the last quarter. The US figures are, frankly, bizarre, In the case of smartphones, at least, the US really is a different planet from the rest of us.
While Symbian actually has more than 90 percent of the smartphone market in Europe (EMEA, to be precise), it has about five percent in the US, and that figure has actually been declining. Three other operating systems have bigger shares. Access (the new name for PalmSource) is declining as you would expect, while both Windows Mobile and RIM are expanding - and Windows currently seems to have around half the US smartphone market.
So, it's from the US that we get the "Windows Mobile will win" story. In that country at least, it seems to be true.
Symbian can breathe a sigh of relief based on the actual size of that market (the width of the US column). But I think that would be premature. Technology trends in the US often have a way of playing out in the rest of the world (though admittedly, not often in mobile phones).
I think Symbian needs to take action against Windows Mobile - and tomorrow I'll try and think what that action might be.
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