The story of how Symbian died
And how Nokia went down along with it
Let me take you back in time. Right now. To a time when hard core mobile app developers coded in bare bones C++, while the inexperienced newbies struggled with OPL, hoping to one day grasp all the difficult and confusing new concepts so that we too could make gorgeous applications for the latest Nokia devices. What happened that led Symbian down the path of failure? Well let me give you my version of the story..
Before we begin I would like to say that I appreciate all that Nokia has done for the development of mobile phones. They pretty much invented the app store (Surprise surprise!), the smartphone concept, and focused on the importance of good quality camera optics in mobile devices. So even though Nokia has been… struggling.. for the last.. 4 years now, we still owe them some gratitude for their efforts during their prime years.
But thats not what this post is about now, is it. I am more interested in what Nokia did wrong. How did they go from being the absolute, world dominating market leader to basically becoming the modern-day, mobile equivalent of the Titanic?
Oh, and just so its absolutely clear. I am no market analyst or financial mastermind and I know nothing about running a big company. However, I do know quite a bit about mobile phones, application development and technology in general, so bear with me, and hopefully, what you read will make sense. Lets begin.
So yes, imagine that we’re back in the early 2000′s. The Millennium bridge in London has been opened, Mad cow disease is terrifying Europe, and Tiger Woods is starting get a hang of this whole golf thing. More importantly for this context, everyone where pretty much walking about with Nokia phones in their pockets. Symbian-running phones dominated the low-end phone market as well as the high-end business segment. Windows Mobile was also around, but at least in Europe, Symbian had a good firm grip on things. Life was good for Nokia.
The concept of apps was present, but not in the same sense as today. Developing for phones was a challenging affair as there were no easy-to-use SDK’s with well written and solid documentation to along with it. You basically wrote countless lines of C++ code, you had to be a pretty hardcore developer, and know what you were doing. And thats how things were pretty much until 2007. OPL vanished somewhere before that since it wasnt really a viable path to glory.
Nokia did seemingly see how the concept of a centralized easily accessible repository for apps could be a good thing. So in 2005, all new S60-devices had an onboard app store called Download!. Apart from bearing striking resemblance to the name “Yahoo!” thanks for the added exclamation mark, the project pretty much died right away as Nokia never really put much effort into it. They didnt fix the underlying problem, mainly that app development was still reserved for the elite few hardcore developers. There was no incentive for the rest of us to get into mobile app development. At least not for me.
Then came 2007 and Steve Jobs announced the iPhone. Even though it met a lot of criticism, most people saw how this changed everything. It completely revolutionized how we define our mobile phones, how we interact with it, and what to expect from it. Microsoft and Nokia were now facing a tough question. Should we scrap our existing platforms and make something new or patch up our operating systems and tweak them into this new, touch screen focused, application oriented way of life? Both parties initially chose the latter option. Windows Mobile became more touch-friendly and Nokia tried to introduce a touch screen interface on their ExpressMusic device, but while seemingly still convincing themselves that this touch-screen thing will blow over, and continued to focus on the traditional candybar situation with their now, already ancient-looking Symbian OS. To make matters worse for Nokia, Google then launched Android which reinforced these new ideas that Apple had brought to the table even further. Its all about the apps! With iOS and Android came beautiful and fantastic SDK’s coupled with a structured, user friendly and intuitive documentation which didnt assume that you already were a top notch coder. Suddenly, you didnt have to be an expert any more. You didnt have to know the innards of C++ before even attempting a basic “Hello World” app for your new phone. All you needed was a good idea and the dedication to sit down and learn the basics of Objective-C or Java, and the rest would come as you went along.
Nokia’s response to this was to buy the Qt development framework. However, I think at this point, it was already too late. Developers were rushing to iOS as well as Android and pumping out high quality apps in a pace never before seen. To add insult to injury, Nokia took Qt and coupled it with the most confusing, fragmented and painful developer documentation Ive encountered. And while working my way through it, it seemed like an afterthought from Nokias part. Where was the incentives?
Eventually Microsoft realized what Nokia didnt and scrapped Windows Mobile and launched Windows Phone 7. They appealed strongly to developers, offering free phones and prizes, attracting people towards their newly launched platform, achieving some success in a tight market now dominated completely by Apple and Google, leaving Nokia on the side lines, still deciding where it wants to go and what it wants to be.
See, that’s the thing about Nokia to me. They take too much time realizing where the market is headed. That is fine when you’re pretty much the only actor in the movie, but it simply doesnt work once you have able competition. They refused to accept that touch screen based devices was the future until the future was already the past.
So what could have been different had Qt been brought forth a few years earlier along with a significantly bigger effort on the Download! app store project? Its hard to imagine perhaps, but all the ingredients were there! Nokia just seemingly failed to see the importance of it before it was too late.
Another problem I have with Nokia now is how, even though they are sinking faster than the Titanic (yes I know, Ive used up the Titanic point) they still have some potential they could gain some ground with. Yet, Nokia seemingly have a fantastic ability of messing things up. Take the PureView 808. Probably the best camera ever seen on a phone by quite some margin. This fact alone attracts attention of such a vast amount of users! However, instead of coupling this wonderful camera with Windows Phone 7, giving both Nokia and the OS some much needed attention, they put Symbian on it. The result is quite accurately described in The Verge’s review.
The short and bittersweet conclusion is this: Nokia has produced the greatest cameraphone ever and saddled it with the most antiquated and frustrating OS it could find. You’ll be as astonished by the 808 PureView’s image quality as you will be by Nokia’s audacity in shipping a phone with a dead end operating system that should have been retired from duty years ago.
If we go further back, Nokia wastes another vital opportunity that could patch up some holes in the ship (Yes, another Titanic reference). The flagship of all flagship devices. The phone that combined all of Nokia’s “innovations” into one single epic piece of phone. The qwerty keyboard, FM transmitter, monster battery, smart hinge mechanism, the whole shebang. Basically, everything that was good about Nokia’s past high end devices was coming together into one phone that was going to turn things around. The N97. But what happened? Nokia decided to save a few bucks and went short on the RAM and system disk size. In fact, they left it untouched compared to the then ancient predecessor. The result was a lagging, painful experience that left most users forgetting about the phone before it even got to the stores. The early adopters were devastated. Worse more, this continued to plague the rest of the 5th generation of S60 devices. With the iPhone and Android, people were now demanding more performance from their mobile devices, and they use their phones for tasks previously unheard of. Turn-by-turn navigation, web browsing, YouTube streaming, etc, etc. And Nokia seemingly completely failed on anticipating how much RAM might be needed to make their shiny S60 devices cope with this. Not only resulting in bad performing phones, but seemingly also Nokia’s new reputation. The word on the street now got to the point where people associate Nokia devices with poor performance, an ancient looking interface and basically just crappy phones.
Symbian’s wow-factors are all long gone now. They have no bragging rights, nothing that Android and iOS doesnt already do better. Nokia’s inability to analyze the future and go down the right path has lead to a market share that has been taking a head dive for years now. The only question remaining is this. Will their Windows Phone strategy become their main area of focus and succeed, or will they continue to stray in the land of indecisiveness? If it turns out to be the latter, I dont think we will see Nokia around for much longer.