The Nightingale pivot

11. The Nightingale pivot

Success breeds success. However, equally, delays breed delays. Product plans that make sense if delivered at a given time often make less sense if delivered six months later. This realisation causes management to seek to add in new features, resulting in yet more delays. Delays breed delays.

It’s not only the competitive climate that can change, over an extra 6-12 months or so. The investment climate can change too. Symbian’s first two years of existence coincided with a time of general economic optimism and rocketing share prices. Many companies accepted that it was the time to invest heavily in creating technological capabilities for smartphone solutions. But by 2000 and 2001, a different spirit had set in. By the end of 2001, Symbian’s standard presentation for analysts was listing a series of negative factors in the macroeconomic climate:

  • Hi-Tech bubble bursts
  • 2.5G and 3G network delays
  • Product cancellations
  • Fears of economic recession
  • Companies failing amid profits warnings
  • Terrorism and war.

Network operators in countries worldwide had committed billions of dollars of expenditure for 3G networks, often in a competitive auction process which had ramped up the price far higher than they had been hoping to pay. The mobile industry as a whole had less discretionary money to invest in what could be seen as speculative innovation projects. This climate led to the cancellation of many projects. Symbian projects were by no means the only victims in this era of cutbacks.

These macroeconomic developments increased the pressure on the Symbian leadership team to rethink its core focus and mode of operation. Continuing “the same as before” was not an option.

The outcome of this rethink was a significant pivot, compared to our previous direction. From this point on, Symbian would concentrate on faster delivery of core technology components to licensees, and would henceforth rely on “supported third parties” to create UI systems. Symbian would no longer be an active owner of DFRDs.

In later years, people would often look back in regret at this decision. This chapter explains how the decision took place, and considers what alternatives might have been feasible.


After their initial honeymoon period with Symbian, almost all licensees came to the view that Symbian suffered from a chronic “over-commitment disease”. In March 2000, I had received a mandate from my colleagues on the Symbian operational board to analyse this issue. I distilled the problem as follows:

Over-commitment means that we make commitments that we will not be able to meet:

  • More technologies in a release
  • Technologies better integrated, better tested, and better documented
  • Earlier releases
  • Releases available to a wider number of customers.

Over-commitment will cause the following to happen:

  • Quality suffers: because of over-stress in the workforce, there are more bugs, and bigger bugs
  • Architecture suffers: a release may be made in time (more or less) to meet one particular deadline, but so many corners will have been cut that future development of that software (or re-use of that software) becomes even harder
  • The customer suffers: they make big plans based on what we have committed to them, and then get badly burned when we fail to make the delivery that was predicted
  • Personnel suffer: they “die trying”, becoming over-stressed, and leave the company, further increasing the pressure on the people who are left
  • Symbian loses: customers defect to other suppliers where the grass is greener (and where the development teams remain intact).

Nevertheless, the pressures leading Symbian to persistently over-commit were strong. As I wrote,

The potential market for devices containing EPOC is enormous. It attracts strong interest from a range of very powerful companies. These companies all see some of the huge potential of wireless information devices, and understandably, are prepared to hustle hard to get a piece of the action.

For various reasons, these companies are dissatisfied with the service Symbian is giving them at the moment. They want: more technology, more advice, more documentation, and releases that are tested more thoroughly and which are available earlier. They see their own limited window of opportunity slipping away from them, on account of the shortcomings in Symbian’s deliveries, and grow very anxious as a result.

All this translates into immense pressure on Symbian. Of course, successful companies tend to attract this kind of pressure; Symbian is not unique in this. But the scale of the pressure is particularly acute, on account of

  • The scale of the opportunities of our marketplace
  • The variety of major players who all want to be involved
  • The quickening pace of technological advances
  • The tensions of living on “Internet Time”
  • The wealth of money ferociously chasing opportunities around inside the “Internet Bubble” before that bubble bursts
  • The perceived mis-match of vision and reality: the vision of wireless information devices is written about endlessly in numerous magazines and ezines, but the reality of the existing nascent such devices is very disappointing
  • The worry that, if we stumble, even momentarily, we will be swept aside by the Microsoft Juggernaut.

I saw five key ingredients in a recipe that would allow Symbian to escape from the vicious negative cycle of over-commitment, under-performance, greater customer pressure, and yet more over-commitment:

[ SNIP ]

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