Symbian remembered by those who started it

If you’re a fan of the Symbian platform – we’ve got some bad news. Nokia has announced on Friday that although the OS is still being supported for the near future, its booking at the euthanasia clinic has been confirmed.

“The rate of transition [from Symbian to Windows Phone 7] will be based on the speed Windows Phone will come down the price points and customer demand,” said Stephen Elop, Nokia's CEO, at Nokia’s strategy meeting in London. 

We reached out to Paul Cockerton who led the branding and public launch of Symbian and ran its Global Marketing and Communications until 2004 when he left to co-found Any Question Answered to see what he thought of the news having been in at the beginning.

He’s now Operations Managing Director at Dynamo, a PR company launched in Jan 2011, where he’s trying to put his many years of working with PR agencies and mobile knowledge to better use. He has one wife, 2 kids, 7 bikes and 84 cousins. You can follow him @pcockerton or find him working at Dynamo PR.

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Nearly 13 years ago I was standing in a former printers shop just off Marylebone Road, London when I was briefed that we, the 80-strong software ARM of Psion, were planning to launch a new company where our shareholders would be the leading mobile phone manufacturers – Ericsson and Nokia. Over the next 10 weeks 20 Psion Software execs spent 18 hour days with board members from Psion, Ericsson and Nokia, as well as a plethora of bankers and lawyers, trying to shoehorn everyone’s requirements into a new company.

I had the easy bit – managing the delivery of the branding, positioning, identity and public launch of the new company without letting other employees know, let alone external competitors, shareholders or partners. It didn’t always run smoothly – a couple of days before the announcement one of the lawyers accidentally faxed the shareholder agreement to a Psion shareholder. Luckily after a quick phone call he was happy to tear it up and ignore it.

In that 10 weeks I gained a rapid education in the forces that drive companies to create alliances. Whilst we had good technology, and it had been proved already in developing one of the worlds first touch screen smart phones (Philips Ilium Synergy, launched in March 1998), the key drivers for Nokia and Ericsson to come to us were that we were prepared to license the OS for $5-$10, and that we weren’t Microsoft. No one wanted to dance with the beast.

Finally, on 24 June after a week of sleepless nights, and a quick call to Motorola to get them in on the deal, we put out the press release. The Redmond ‘beast’ was incensed; Bill Gates was so infuriated by the deal that he wrote in an infamous memo ‘Symbian is bad for us no matter what’ and named us as his no.1 enemy.

For the next several years we were terrible for Microsoft. We must have seemed untouchable. The plan of course was to become the defacto choice of OS for smartphones, and over time migrate down into mid and basic phones taking up more and more share of the market. Having a common platform should aid developers to write applications, aid phone manufacturers to rapidly bring phones to market, and most importantly it’s ‘owned’ by the industry so there was little chance of licensees becoming just OEMs and having their margins squeezed later on.

Everyone wanted to become a shareholder, most wanted to become a licensee of the renamed Symbian OS. Psion’s shareprice increased at least six-fold in value and Symbian started being valued at anything up to £8 billion. There was even talk about an IPO and a CFO was hired to dance before the financial analysts. We were delivering software to schedule, and new amazing phones were hitting the market.

So am I sad now to see Symbian being relegated to a finnish dustbin when it had shown so much promise? Of course. We were the new kid on the block, we were arrogant as hell, and we were winning for what seemed a long time. But the end of Symbian didn’t start last Friday, when Nokia’s new CEO Elop handed out a death sentence. It started perhaps 10 years ago.

On March 2000 we were hit by the dot.com crash. Whilst Symbian didn’t go under, the wave of optimism that we’d been riding disappeared overnight and everything seemed much more diffcult. Another major trend in the market was causing a problem, that of Nokia’s success. When we started Symbian all of the shareholders were roughly equal, with Nokia holding the no.3 position. In 2003, when Symbian (and Psion) received a shock that Motorola was not going to do a joint Psion phone, Nokia was in no.1 position and able to pick up Motorola’s share. In many ways, it felt like Symbian’s destiny was just being driven by one company now, Nokia.

I left shortly after to co-found AQA (Any Question Answered) with the former CEO of Symbian so only now watched Symbian with a half interested eye. But from the outside things just seemed to go from bad to worse. I still remember buying my first non-Symbian phone (a blackberry) in 2006 and how guilty I felt. Then when I picked up an iPhone in 2009 I was no longer a Symbian fanboy but it still left an odd taste in the mouth. The last Symbian phone that I thought was any good was the N95.

So it was with this history of attachment that I read Elop’s burning bridges memo. Some (including famously now Tomi Ahonen) thought it was a fake but, given its very American-centricity it seemed a clear indicator that Nokia were heading across the Atlantic to find its saviour.

And so it proved. After 12 and a half years of signing up to a Symbionese Liberation Movement, Nokia picked Microsoft as its OS partner, subject to all the usual diligence. Do I like it? Not really. Even though I left 8 years ago I sweated enough blood and guts in the formation of Symbian to be wedded to a mobile world where commoditisation of the user experience isn’t the norm, unlike the PC world, and that specifically means non Microsoft. A lot of Nokia employees didn’t like it either, promptly walking out of the company, and despite Elop’s shot across the analyst bows with his ‘leaked’ memo earlier in the week the markets didn’t seem to like it much either, with Nokia dropping some 14% on NASDAQ.

What do I think should have happened? Nokia should have been braver – there were other options out there, even working with Amazon to create an ecosystem for their devices, whilst continuing with Meego development.

This is just my opinion, and you have to remember that whilst I was responsible for marketing communications of Symbian, I wasn’t responsible for actually forming the company, or bringing in the licensees, or running the technology roadmap. So in the interests of balance I’ve asked a few others who were actually instrumental in creating Symbian to contribute.

Simon East:

Simon was the former VP Technology, Symbian and now CEO of Drivegain, says:

“One of the biggest reasons Nokia was open to creating Symbian in the first place was to avoid the laptopification of the mobile phone market. So it is ironic that they have to turn to Microsoft now. I can see the logic of them going with MS though - only a really big play will get back into the game now.”

Juha Christensen,

Juha was the former EVP Sales and Marketing of Symbian, before leading to run Microsoft’s phone division and now Chairman and CEO at Cloudmade had quite a bit to say, given his unique perspective:

“While it's easy to be sentimental about the last few days' events, I had to deal with this a long time ago. The beginning of the end for Symbian was way back in 2000, when Nokia decided that it was too risky to let Symbian own the user experience on the phones. Nokia wanted to own that control point itself. What ensued was years of creating a user experience that never connected with end users and a developer eco system that never produced substantial hits. 

Series 60 sold, and still sells, in large quantities. While it is sold as a smartphone, customers in fact buy it as a "large screen phone", rarely downloading apps or using the advanced functionality on the device. This is contrary to what Apple has been able to facilitate. Their customers to a great extent buy an empty slate that the customer personalizes with their favorite apps.

Nokia and Microsoft collaborating has the potential to create what my ex colleague Stephen Elop refers to as "The Third Ecosystem". It will require a lot of work over the next years to galvanize developers, update the whole Windows Phone code base to current standards, give the user experience depth beyond the surface level and get the app purchasing model working. Without an equivalent to iTunes, that is going to be hard work.”

Stephen Randall:

And finally Stephen Randall, who as an initial consultant to Psion suggested the separation of the company into software, hardware and industrial departments and so set the course for the eventual formation of Symbian, now CEO of LocaModa, gets the last word.

“As a founder of Symbian, I’ve been thinking a lot about last week’s series of missteps from Nokia – the CEO’s letter about burning oil rigs that must have demotivated the entire company, then the announcement of their Microsoft deal that literally had the workforce walking out.

Symbian was Nokia’s hedge against commoditization of the user experience. In the late 90′s, the threat was Microsoft, today it’s Apple and Android. But unlike a strategy that actually dealt with the threat for a decade, Nokia’s strategy of an MS partnership cannot succeed. They are betting on overlaying services on a commodtized OS – but this is the very strategy that they have consistently failed at. No, if it has any market success with MS, it will be MS’s win not Nokia’s – the UI will belong to Redmond, and multiple hardware companies will be able to undermine any lead that Nokia might gain. And that is a best case scenario.

The event that triggered the Symbian strategy was David Potter waving his ticket to Redmond, telling the Psion executives “When a steam roller is heading for you, you get out the fucking way.” Unlike the Nokia executive team, the executive team at Psion didn’t accept that lame strategy, and so we fought and won a better option.

Unfortunately, last week, Nokia’s CEO didn’t see any better alternative than jumping from his “burning oil rig.” Nokia went back to the steam roller, which was forgotten and rusting. They painted it and gassed it up – and once its engines are warm, it’s going to steam roll over them. Because, underneath it all, MS is still MS.

So what could Nokia have done? They needed an ecosystem, desirable phones and a respected brand. They have the brand, and can make desirable phones – but the ecosystem doesn’t come as a guarantee with MS – not in the handset market. So that’s where the focus had to be and there might have been two better alternatives – neither of them are easy or guaranteed – but might have been better than what they’ve announced:

1. Fund a $1 billion (affordable when looking at the alternatives) Symbian spin out. Armed with new leadership, a commercially motivated mandate and (until last month) the largest platform base in the industry, Symbian should still be viable – (this should have been done 5 years ago – but should have would have doesn’t help us today).

2. Team up with the one other company that also needs a hedge against Apple and/or Android – RIM. A RIM/Nokia alliance would be an able third player in the market and they have a better ecosystem at RIM than MS for phones.

It’s sad, but I suspect Nokia has jumped off the burning oil rig into the burning seas. I hope they have enough time to put out those fires.”

What's your fond memory of Symbian? Let us know in the comments below:



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