Symbian’s greatest hits

27. Symbian’s greatest hits

This chapter and the one following it form a “Symbian retrospective”. In these chapters, I look again at the following questions:

  • Out of all the choices and actions taken over the years by the players in the Symbian world, which ones proved to be the most significant?
  • Of these decisions, which were the greatest hits, and which the greatest misses?
  • What are the alternative options that could credibly have been pursued which might have made the greatest difference to Symbian success or failure?

In all cases, my longer-term interest is in providing food for thought for people facing similar choices as they seek to establish other ground-breaking industries based on new emerging technology.

The long path to profitability

The original June 1998 business plan for Symbian – codenamed “Nova” at the time – envisioned the company becoming profitable within three years:

Nova, trading today as Psion Software PLC, turned over £6.4 million but incurred a loss before tax of £1.1 million in 1997.

During 1998 the company will grow significantly in terms of headcount and overheads, while revenues decline from the 1997 level due to decreased royalties.

The company’s sales will grow during 1999 to an expected £7.3 million, but to further accelerate R&D, the company is planning a pretax loss of £16.9 million. Total expenditure in 1999, using the above staffing levels, will be £22.5 million.

The company projects sales of £27.9 million with a pretax loss of £11.1 million in 2000, and sales of £63.2 and an 11% net profit margin in 2001.

This assumed:

  • A reduction in the per-unit royalty rate compared to what Psion Software (the precursor of Symbian) had been charging to licensees – this reduction was made with the intent to “accelerate the mass market”
  • A modest rise in headcount over the same period of time, from 150 on company formation, to 438 by the end of 2001 – with the biggest growth spurt happening in the first six months to the end of 1998.

In reality, it took until 2005 for the company to reach profitability. Staff headcount had already reached 625 by the end of 2001 – 480 in London, 58 in Cambridge, 71 in Ronneby Sweden, 14 in Tokyo, and 2 in Redwood City, Silicon Valley. Expenditure was therefore significantly larger than the baseline assumptions in the original business case. However, the main cause of the delay in profitability was a much slower than expected ramp-up in sales.

Nevertheless, after a delayed start, Symbian devices eventually sold in ever larger numbers: 1.0 million in 2002, 6.7M in 2003, 14.4M in 2004, 34.0M in 2005, 51.7M in 2006, and 77.3M in 2007. A cumulative total of 100 million was reached in 2006, some eight years after the formation of the company. The next 100 million took only another 18 months. Another 300 million followed in the three years after that – up till 2011.

Multiply the total figure of 500 million devices by an average sales price of at least 100 Euros, and the result is a figure that far exceeds the conscious planning of the Symbian founding team.

Over the course of this time, Symbian:

  • Opened minds as to what smartphones could accomplish. In particular, people realised that there was much more they could do with mobile phones, beyond making phone calls. This glimpse encouraged other companies to enter this space, with alternative smartphone platforms that achieved, in the end, considerably greater success
  • Developed a highly capable touch UI platform (UIQ), years before Android/iPhone
  • Supported a rich range of different kinds of mobile devices, all running versions of the same underlying software engine
  • Achieved early demonstrations of breakthrough capabilities for mobile phones, including streaming multimedia, smooth switching between wifi and cellular networks, maps with GPS updates, the use of a built-in compass and accelerometer, and augmented reality – such as in the 2003 “Mozzies” (“Mosquitos”) game for the Siemens SX1
  • Held together an alliance of competitors, among the set of licensees and partners of Symbian, with the various companies each having the opportunity to benefit from solutions initially developed with some of their competitors in mind
  • Demonstrated that mobile phones could contain many useful third party applications, without at the same time becoming hotbeds of viruses
  • Featured in some of the best-selling mobile phones of all time, up till then, such as the Nokia 5230, which sold 150 million units.

Is this a success or a failure? By one measure, the final conclusion of Symbian is a failure. The company team brief at the end of 2001 – and for several years around that time – proudly trumpeted a vision “Symbian OS in every phone”. That was, of course, never achieved.

On the other hand, there was a period of several years, around 2006-2010, when revenues from Symbian devices probably accounted for at least half of the phone sales income for Nokia, which was by far the leading phone manufacturer in the world at that time.

That outcome was the result of a multi-year journey in which Symbian steadfastly kept its eye on the underlying goal of increasing our share of the mobile phone market. The tactics and intermediate objectives changed many times over these years, but the underlying spirit remained constant – even as personnel switched out and in of the company’s leadership team. That multi-year journey was the one I mapped out in the 2001 document “Towards the 100 millionth Symbian OS phone” which was the subject of Chapter 2 in this book. Despite the deviations and the delays, and despite not actually managing to include Symbian OS in every single mobile phone in the world, it was a remarkable voyage.

Symbian’s success went wider than just Nokia. Various UIQ-based devices by Sony Ericsson and Motorola also broke the mould in their time, and are fondly remembered by people who used them around the world. Further, around 40 million Symbian devices were sold in Japan from 2003 onwards, by Fujitsu, Sharp, Mitsubishi, and Sony Ericsson. For many years, more than half of the advanced phones sold in that country were Symbian-powered.

Nor should we forget some of the wonderful applications which were highly regarded by users of Symbian devices. My own favourite was the “Gravity” app by Jan Ole Suhr, which provided a very pleasant interaction with Twitter. The app was exclusively available for Symbian devices. Three user comments in response to a short Guardian April 2010 article about Gravity,, echo my own thoughts on that app:

1) It has every Twitter function I could ever need, handles links and photos beautifully, multiple accounts integrate well, great UI. I often choose Gravity over using my laptop, even when I have both to hand. It also integrates with Facebook and Google Reader. Any danger of seeing that functionality on an iPhone Twitter app?

2) On the PC I use Tweetdeck and frankly it’s nothing compared to Gravity. The developer Jan-Ole Suhr is also a super guy, very active on Twitter (obviously!) and answers support requests and also good to chat with generally. Very much worth the £6-7 I spent.

3) Been using Gravity for about ten months now, jumping on board very shortly after it was launched. It’s been excellent, and in that time the feature set has expanded considerably, with no loss in usability. When I first got my E63 I tried out several twitter apps, from the free to other paid for apps. Despite the fact Gravity was the most expensive, it wasn’t a difficult choice to make, and with the support and expansion since then the decision should be even easier for new Symbian using twitter users.

Jan managed to earn a reasonable living from sales of his Gravity app, However, the profits made by writers of Symbian apps pale in comparison with the fortunes made by a range of companies who created apps for other smartphone platforms. This is just one of the ways in which the smartphone platforms that came after Symbian were able to transcend our level of success.

Hits and misses, introduced

Before listing in the next chapter factors which could have changed this state of affairs – factors which could have led, for example, to a much wider number of developers earning much greater profits from their Symbian apps – let’s recap in the remainder of this chapter the major factors which underlay the successes that the Symbian world did enjoy.

[ SNIP ]

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