The Symbian Operating System – Its Rise and Fall

Before the Android world ruled Smartphones, one of the most widely-adopted operating systems for smart mobile devices was the Symbian OS. The platform was popular up until 2010 when Google’s Android gave it a run for its money. Eventually, its development ceased in mid-2014.

The inception of the Symbian platform began with a system referred to as EPOC, an OS which was created in the 1980s by one company we have fond memories of; Psion. In 1998, Sony Ericson, Nokia, and Motorola came together and formed Symbian Ltd. EPOC hence became Symbian OS. The system was designed to run on ARM processors and was used to power some of the most powerful smartphones at the time.

Samsung and LG also joined the Symbian world after it was born and in 2000, Ericson R380 became the first Symbian mobile device in the world. The OS would enjoy a substantial market share until it faced several challenges that led to its gradual failure.

In 2010, when other members including LG, Samsung, and Sony Ericson, adopted other operating systems, Nokia took over the running of the Symbian Foundation and transitioned it to licensing organizations only. Not long after, the market shares began dropping and with stiff competition from iOS and Android, the Symbian death row began. The difficulty in programming due to fragmentation greatly contributed to its demise.

In February 2011, after Nokia’s newly appointed CEO announced that the company was partnering with Microsoft to develop Nokia devices running Windows, the Symbian platform gradually dropped. Developers deserted the ecosystem rapidly.

Two months later, the company stopped sourcing Symbian codes and substantially decreased the number of collaborations it had to a mere group of specific partners in Japan. In June the same year, Accenture, through an agreement with Nokia began outsourcing the Symbian-based resources and support services.

In 2014, the support, development and the maintenance of the Symbian platform were ceased. Developers could no longer create or develop more applications for Symbian. But the applications that had already been published are still available for download.

Symbian User Interface

The graphics toolkit enjoyed by the Symbian platform always remained the native Series 60, which was later to take the name AVKON. Its design could easily be manipulated by a keyboard or mini-QWERTY keyboards.

Software running on the Series 60 platform was binary compatible with most Symbian versions including the third generation of Symbian, which incorporated the Qt framework. This framework became the most preferred UI toolkit for the development of new applications.

There were beautiful prospects for the company to develop Symbian ^4 and although its preview was released, Nokia canceled it. Had it seen the light of day, it would have marked a new era of GUI library framework that could be adapted for touch screens.

Before the untimely demise of the Symbian platform, Nokia recommended that developers adopted the Qt Quick with QML for the development of intuitive and lively screen interfaces. The two made the best user interface frameworks that outputted the best results, which allowed development for MeeGo and the Symbian platform.

The variants of the Symbian user interface based on the Symbian ecosystem include:
• The Symbian Series 60, also known simply as the S60. It was later to be called Symbian versions 1, 2, and 3.
• The Symbian Series 80 used by phones like the Nokia 9300i. • Symbian Series 90, which supported both touch and button features. One of the popular phones that used this platform includes the Nokia 7710.
• The UIQ, which was mainly run by Motorola and Sony Ericsson devices. They supported touch with a stylus and button features but were discontinued after Nokia took over the stewardship. Both SonyEricsson and Motorola skinned this Symbian OS with intuitive icons that augured well with the portrait orientations in smartphones apart from the softkey input systems. A good example is the Motorola M1000
• The Mobile Oriented Applications Platform (MOAP) developed on top of the Symbian OS was used mainly in Asia for Sony Ericson, Fujitsu, Mitsubishi, and Sharp. Fujitsu’s Symbian-based F-022 is a good example of a clamshell handset running on the platform.
• The MOAP successor, OPP, which was in Japan only.

Struggling with the UI

Through the success of the Symbian devices, all there was by Nokia and its partners was to roll out smartphones of different shapes and screen sizes. From flip phones to a consistent stream of candybars, the growth was unstoppable, then the iPhones arrived in 2007 and Android in 2008.

The two offered the best platforms and introduced some of the best touchscreen mobile devices ever created. Nokia, the company running Symbian in its later years, desperately wanting to match the unstoppable competition and needing to evolve the OS decided to open source the platform in 2008. The move was to accelerate its growth and try to salvage the operating system that was falling behind.

Some good came out of trying to catch up with the competition; a Symbian OS made for the touchscreens was created. The building of this Symbian platform consisted of bringing together the Series 60 technology, the MOAP, and the UIQ, which were all pooled to be a unified touch system for new smartphones.

With the new OS, Symbian S60 version 5, Nokia 5800 XpressMusic became the first touch-enabled device. It was released in late 2008. Nevertheless, the device still lacked the touch-centric capacity but was brought to life by the Symbian ^3 in 2010. By then, it was already becoming too late for the OS. The sales had already fallen.

This 3rd version of Symbian incorporated as many features as it could. With fast graphics, widget support, and multiple screens, it packed several other features that its rivals had, yet, it was again a little too late.

Nokia then tried one last ditch to salvage the Symbian technology. It released Symbian Anna, which was followed by another update, the Symbian Belle. The Anna version was characterized by an improvement in text inputs, browsing speed as well as a novelty in its user interface that carried rounded icons.

The Belle version brought additional features including the customization of widgets. Also, it added more home screens and a status screen that was pulled down, much like the Androids. The version also supported Near Field Connectivity (NFC). Through the pull-down menu, one could access settings, get access to notifications including text messages and missed calls among others.

But because Android already had these features, Nokia perhaps got tired of always being the second best. Eventually, it stopped making new UIs for Symbian.

Symbian Marketing Issues

The success of the Symbian platform was first realized in the first quarter of 2004, where it sold 2.4 million devices, a number that double the ones realized in the same period under review the previous year. The progress was realized much in Japan.

By the third quarter of 2004, a total of 3.7 million devices had been shipped. This registered a 201 percent growth compared to the year 2003. The market share consequently grew from 30.5 percent to 50.2 percent. Unfortunately, this was not the case in the United States. It had less popularity and the market share was a mere 6 percent in the third quarter of 2004. This was far behind Palm OS and Windows Mobile which enjoyed 43 and 25 percent market share respectively.

However, by 2006, the Symbian platform was enjoying a significant growth that drove it to reach a global smartphone market share of 73 percent. It would take a downward plunge to 22.1 percent as evidenced by the financials of the second quarter of 2011.

The introduction of other platforms, iPhone and Android saw the market shares of the Symbian OS drop. The irony is that during this period, the sales of the Symbian devices increased. In 2008, the OS’s market share had dropped to 47.2 percent in 2009 from 52.4 percent in 2008. The shipments, however, increased from 74.9 million to 78.5 million units characterized by a growth of 4.8 percent.

The sales continued to increase over the years and in 2010, reports showed that Symbian was the leader with 47.2 percent shipping volume followed by RIM with 20.8 percent, and Apple, Microsoft and Android with 15.1, 8.8 and 4.7 percent respectively.

At the end of the second quarter of 2010, estimates put the number of Symbian devices sold at 385 million. Between 2009 and 2010 most of the mobile manufacturers in the Symbian platform, Sony Ericson, Motorola, Samsung, and LG withdrew from the camp and adopted other operating Systems.

The second quarter of 2012 marked the year Symbian market share hit an all-time low of 4.4 percent. Its death was imminent and with Nokia alone struggling with its stewardship, it was no easy task.

Several reasons can be attributed to the fall in Symbian’s market share. Obviously, the first would be the introduction of iPhone OS and Android. Before the two were introduced, Symbian enjoyed little to no competition.

Apple’s iPhones ushered in a whole new world of touchscreen devices. They introduced a more convenient, best-experience and elegant keypads, QWERTY keys and menu systems that quickly became the center of the attraction. A year later, the entry of Android into the market solidified the capacitive touchscreen era.

As opposed to the Symbian platform which had enjoyed a good time for years, iOS and Android, being fairly new carried a design that one could tell was not for the pocket PDA. Their architecture was connected to easy computing. As it were, their centric-touchscreen made an impeccable platform for the delivery of compatible apps.

The fragmentation of the ecosystem keen in the Symbian platform slowly was replaced by the new operating systems and is the reason why before long, broad range of touchscreen devices were making their way into the market.

Android and iPhone Oss put much of their focus on actual touch computing, which couldn’t be matched by the Symbian type. The advantage drove the Symbian platform gradually out of the market.

Third-Party Development

Many of the applications run by the Symbian platform belonged to third-party developers who it encouraged in order to give users better and cheaper applications. The efforts by Symbian to win the hearts of third-party developers came in 2005 when it made an initiative that offered third-party applications the OS’s stamp without necessarily testing them. The idea was a success and by 2007 when iPhone OS launched, there were already about 10,000 apps available for the Symbian platform.

However, despite its success, the system faced different challenges, particularly in its development. For one, developing apps for the OS was a daunting task. There only existed complex native programming languages – the Symbian C++ and the OPL. The two were the major hindrances to app development and the high prices of several SDKs and IDEs only made things worse.

Manufacturers also engaged in duels each developing its own IDEs and SDKs and ultimately, the resultant fragmentation became one of the reasons for the slow progress of the Symbian system. Because of these reasons, third-party developers couldn’t do much to help the system develop the best and evolving apps.

Looking at Android OS and iOS (which was previously known as iPhone OS until 2010), their infrastructure and the fairly simpler design, they provided a much friendly ecosystem that allowed private developers to create apps for the two platforms. The two readily offered programming languages that were at least comprehensive and manageable. As such, developers could multi-task and utilize its graphics to meet specific consumer preferences.

Whether the fall of the Symbian platform was anticipated or not, one thing is for sure, the difficulty in its development or programming could have been salvaged by the creation of Mobile Edition Apps with Java by writing once and enabling them to run anywhere. Apparently, Symbian didn’t utilize with reasons attributed to phones with different screen sizes and capability of the Java ME support by the mobile devices.

Nokia, in June 2008, acquired Symbian Ltd. This led to the formation of the Symbian Foundation which led to the provision of most of the Symbian platform’s source codes under the Eclipse Public License (EPL) – an open source license.

The acquisition gave Nokia the upper hand in the contribution and the distribution of the OS’s code. The company became the sole developer of the resources used by the operating system and its user interface. It maintained the resource’s repository and occasionally released some to the public.

Nonetheless, some core elements used by the Symbian OS belonging to third parties restricted Nokia from publishing the whole source under the open license in a timely manner. However, the full source code was written and offered under the Symbian Foundation License (SFL), which was somehow limiting. Its access was limited to only a few companies though membership was welcomed.

Following the introduction of the open source Qt – a convenient and free framework for development – in 2010, other frameworks become incorporated into the platform. The deployed frameworks included Python, Flash Lite, Ruby, and the Standard C/C++. It was then that Symbian OS realized some of the best apps ever.

Application development for the Symbian platform largely relied on its user interface. The Qt framework was largely used for development together with the Symbian SDK. The framework could be used together with Carbide – the Symbian integrated development environment (IDE) – or the Qt Creator. Although, before the introduction of the Qt framework, CodeWarrior was used.

Th Qt development framework supports Feature Pack 1, the fifth edition and the latest version of the Symbian S60 platform as well as MeeGo, Windows, Mac OS X, Maemo, and Linux.

Where it All Went Wrong

Putting these transitions into perspective, one thing remains clear; the system was based in the 1990s PDA unlike the iPhone and Android OS which were based on the computing world.

The PDA platform meant complexity in adapting user experiences to fit what the competing operating systems provided. The development potential declined and the Symbian OS became unmanageable.

The legacy code and Symbian’s installed base couldn’t match with the Android and iOS APIs, which brought to inception some of the best development tools. The two held Symbian captive in its cocoon of Psion heritage.

The stagnation of the Symbian platform meant giving up a position it had held for many years. Transitioning fast enough or competing with other operating systems meant it couldn’t keep or attract developers either.

Some of the changes it made, like the formation of Symbian Foundation and the open sourcing of the Symbian OS, were in hope for the setting free of the software from bottlenecks like its heritage, the licensing fee, and the chain that strangled its supply.

All the signs were there, but it didn’t fly. Apart from the open source decision, there were moves made to address one of Symbian’s biggest challenges; fragmentation. The unification of the third-party user interfaces and the incorporation of the Qt framework under the S60 series would guarantee easy porting of applications across the Symbian, Series 40 and the MeeGo platforms.

Moreover, the platform, under Nokia made other efforts in its ecosystem by working on a store that could allow third-party developers with 5 apps to create their own mini-stores, which they could directly sell using the Symbian platform.

Surprisingly, third-party vendors and developers, even some of the earliest to join the Symbian platform peeled away eventually for reasons that stretched to the manufacturers among other issues that needed to be addressed first.

Nevertheless, the success of the Symbian OS was good while it lasted. Some of its devices are still in use and operational. The resources are still available for download but the distribution and maintenance have stopped. One of the significant advantages that will not be forgotten is the long battery life offered by the devices.