Forecasting Symbian success

2. Forecasting Symbian success

I describe myself as a futurist. I’ve been making forecasts throughout my career in the technology industry. One of the forecasts that gives me considerable pride is a document I wrote in August 2001. Here are the opening paragraphs.

Towards the 100 millionth Symbian OS phone.

It’s hard to forecast the future with any degree of confidence. Investments can go down as well as up. Past performance is not a guarantee of future performance. The beating wings of a single butterfly can give rise to raging tornadoes. You know the kind of thing.

But despite these uncertainties, I have a prediction to share. Some time around the year 2006, the 100 millionth phone will be sold that contains Symbian OS.

With a good prevailing wind, that day might arrive sooner – perhaps even as soon as 2005. With a less co-operative set of market conditions, that day might be delayed, perhaps into 2007. As I said, it’s hard to predict the future. So don’t just take my word for it. Look over the evidence for yourself, test fly a few thought experiments, weigh up the imponderables, and reach your own decision.

Predicting the future

These paragraphs were the start of a document entitled “Towards the 100 millionth Symbian OS phone”. In retrospect, it’s a thought-provoking piece of analysis, which correctly anticipated a number of major developments of the six years that were to follow.

I reproduce the remainder of that document in the rest of this chapter, without any changes, apart from some tweaks in formatting. I share it here, since it allows me to set the scene for some of the key themes of the story of smartphones, ahead of more detailed analysis in subsequent chapters:

  • The variety of increasing functionality contained within ever-more complex mobile phones
  • The competitive landscape within which Symbian operated – particularly the competition from “nameless” mobile operating systems evolved in-house by phone manufacturers
  • The nature of open mobile operating systems as a hard-to-predict “disruptive technology”
  • The “Innovator’s Dilemma” difficulty of discerning the appropriate time for greater investment by customers in an open operating system such as Symbian OS
  • The limitations in what could reasonably be foreseen about forthcoming developments within the smartphone industry.

The document sets out at some length my own thinking from the formative period in Symbian’s history, providing my answers to the criticisms that were being raised with increasing force:

  • Symbian, already three years old at the time, was failing to gain market traction
  • Although most of the world’s leading phone manufacturers had signed licensing agreements with Symbian, to use our software in their phones, their actual projects had frequently been delayed or, worse, cancelled
  • The belt-tightening effects of the 2000-2001 dot com crash loomed large in everyone’s mind; sustained investment in “cool future” technology, like Symbian OS, was no longer an easy decision for device manufacturers to make
  • Many network operators were paying unparalleled amounts of money to central governments for the rights to 3G wireless spectrum, further constraining the amount of money the telecoms industry could spend on other innovative technology
  • The founding vision of Symbian – increasing adoption of Symbian software within ever larger numbers of smartphones – seemed an ever more unlikely prospect.

Symbian’s first CEO, Colly Myers, had travelled around the different Symbian offices several months previously, sharing the Symbian leadership team’s grand vision for the future of Symbian: “Symbian OS in every phone”. As described in the previous chapter, it was a vision that was full of verve and imagination. But still employees asked questions. Doubt remained. Was it still reasonable to hope in the eventual widespread adoption of Symbian OS?

This question deserved a considered reply. Here’s what I wrote:

Who needs an OS anyway?

In the year 2000, more than 400 million mobile phones were sold. I’m not giving away any state secrets if I tell you that considerably less than 1% of these contained Symbian OS. On the face of things, that portends badly for any idea that there will be 100 million Symbian OS phones within just six (or five, or seven) years.

But bear with me.

Symbian OS wasn’t the only “big name” phone OS to fare badly in 2000. Microsoft CE, Palm OS, Linux, you name it – all these operating systems equally failed to come near breaking into single figure percentage points for the mobile phone market. As a rule of thumb, if a member of the general public could give a name to an OS, that OS won’t feature in anything more than a footnote to the sales figures for mobile phones in 2000. Instead of “big name” operating systems, the mobile phone market has been dominated by nameless operating systems. After all, how many people can give the name of the operating system that is at the heart of the Motorola V50, the Siemens C35, the Ericsson T20, the Panasonic GD35, or the Nokia 3310?

Note: these were among the best known phones of the top five mobile phone manufacturers in 2000-2001.

Of course, these operating systems do have names, and each of them has had countless developer-years of hard work poured into them. That huge effort has paid off, through large market shares, albeit not by becoming a household name. And so the mobile phone industry is currently dominated by operating systems that the general public neither knows about, reads about, nor cares about. You probably don’t know what operating system is running your car, or your TV, or your music centre – and likewise you don’t know what operating system is running your mobile phone. It’s not something you’ve had cause to worry about.

But that is about to change. The change will be due to the problem of ever-increasing new functionality, subject to unique constraints of compactness and efficiency.

Recent Posts