Symbian Foundation's Berkin opens up on the platform's future

Larry Berkin, senior vice president of global alliances for the Symbian Foundation

Larry BerkinMore than two years after Nokia (NYSE:NOK) shocked the mobile market by acquiring software licensing company Symbian Limited and announcing plans to evolve the Symbian mobile operating system to an open source platform, Symbian retains its crown as the leading smartphone OS worldwide, controlling 41.2 percent of the global market according to data published in mid-August by research firm Gartner. It was just a year ago that Symbian-based devices represented 51 percent of the market, however--Android, digital services giant Google's rival open-source effort, now accounts for 17.2 percent of the smartphone market, third overall behind Research In Motion's (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry (19.0 percent) and ahead of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS (14.2 percent).

The ongoing erosion of Symbian's smartphone dominance coincides with the a steep decline in developer interest in building applications for the platform. According to a recent survey conducted by mobile software platform provider Appcelerator and research firm IDC, only 13 percent of developers express strong interest in writing Symbian applications, far behind iOS (92 percent), Android (82 percent), BlackBerry (34 percent) and Windows Phone 7 (28 percent).

The challenges facing Symbian connect directly to Nokia's own struggles to reinvent its identity in the post-iPhone universe. Nokia has vowed its new Symbian-powered N8 smartphone will revive its fortunes, with executive vice president Tero Ojanpera telling Bloomberg the device will reverse consumers' belief that Nokia phones aren't as fun or as easy to use as other, more popular devices. But the N8 is the last Nokia N-series smartphone slated to run Symbian--future editions will instead run the MeeGo OS, although Symbian will continue to power lower-end Nokia devices.

Symbian's future prospects took another turn in the days leading up to the recent CTIA Enterprise & Applications 2010 conference in San Francisco, when handset makers Sony Ericsson and Samsung Electronics--two members of the Symbian Foundation board--both stated they will no longer manufacture Symbian-based devices. Moving forward, Sony Ericsson will instead focus its smartphone efforts on Google's Android platform, and Samsung will emphasize Android as well as Windows Phone 7 and its own bada operating system.

Where does Symbian go from here? During the CTIA event, FierceDeveloper spoke with Larry Berkin, senior vice president of global alliances for the Symbian Foundation, the non-profit initiative charged with overseeing the platform's maturation. Read on.

FierceDeveloper: The Symbian Foundation just released a new mobile advertising SDK in association with Smaato. Let's start there.

Berkin: We continue to see an examination of paid-for vs. ad-enabled application revenue models, and this is our attempt to provide the vehicle for developers to try that out. Plenty of developers have asked us about this--now they can use this SDK to ad-wrap their Symbian apps, and monetize them in different ways. Smaato is one of the leading ad platforms out there. They leverage 50 different mobile ad networks.

FierceDeveloper: Is mobile advertising support now a legitimate business model for developers, or is that a concept that's still off in the future?

Berkin: It depends on the cost structure, but yes--when you look at the numbers thrown out to justify the acquisitions of companies like AdMob, you see that indeed many mobile developers are making money on advertising, and only on advertising. It allows a different form of application to be created--a marketing one. When you see big brands putting out apps and not charging for them, it gives them another vehicle to reach customers. I'm a big believer in where that goes.

Paid apps and services are not going away, but it's a new market. Look at the success of a company like [cross-platform application store] GetJar. How did they get to be so successful? It's because people want stuff that's free. So we're seeing ad-based apps, but it's not just about display ads--it's about something else. We're seeing multiple ways to engage customers.

FierceDeveloper: Let's move on to the elephant in the room. Within the past few weeks, both Sony Ericsson and Samsung said they will not support Symbian on future devices. How big a blow is that?

Berkin: I can't say it's good news. I do think we need to focus on those people actively involved in the platform, like Fujitsu and Sharp. The Fujitsu F-06B is the bestselling product on the DoCoMo network in Japan.

We're looking at this as an opportunity to win back the top OEMs. There's a lot of hidden judo behind that, and we need to make it happen over time. If you look at this in context, it took Linux 15 years to reach critical mass. We're just 18 to 24 months into it, and now we're hitting some speed bumps.

Looking ahead, there are going to be developments in the marketplace that provide friction to the adoption of Android. This industry needs a neutral, open-source solution. It really does.

FierceDeveloper: What kind of Android friction are you anticipating?

Berkin: With Android, there is going to be major patent litigation that could stall their efforts. Oracle is not a casually litigious company--when they pull out their guns, they're going to use them. Google brought Android to market fast, and it didn't consider all the consequences.

Sony Ericsson already has softened its stance on Android. I think the jury is still out on its future. It's still early innings in this marketplace. It's ours to win back.

We're doing our best--we're a small organization, and we're under-resourced. We don't have a lot of OEM adoption because of the timing of the introduction of our platform. It's going to take time.

FierceDeveloper: Surveys show little interest among North American developers in creating Symbian applications. How do you overcome that?

Berkin: There's got to be successful devices here in North America to sell against. That's it. We need a friction-free distribution channel that allows access to the market. There are some good devices here for sale, but they're not marketed in the same way that other devices are.

There's a lot of momentum behind the hero device--is the N8 the hero device for Nokia? They announced a $10 million developer challenge here at the conference with AT&T (NYSE:T). That's great for seeding the market. And on the technical front, we're well covered. We offer the availability of tool chains that touch different developer audiences.

Symbian is truly open--it's the Wild West. The vertically oriented strategy isn't going to work for anyone but Apple. Developers are going to need partners, and they're going to need other people to help them be successful. Symbian is all about that.

FierceDeveloper: Looking ahead, what's next for Symbian? What's the latest on Symbian^4?

Berkin: The jump to Symbian^3 is a big step, but the step to what's next is even bigger. It's going to happen next year.

Our job is to enable the smartphone phenomenon to touch everyone. The knocks on what Symbian was in terms of the user interface will be fixed over time. The bigger issue is how Symbian can democratize the smartphone space, and how it can allow everyone who wants to play to get in.

Look at open source projects like Netscape--two years in, it was in a similar space to where we are now. Then look at where Mozilla is today. We just haven't gotten the formula right. We're still figuring this out.