Where does Symbian go from here?

The annual Symbian Exchange and Exposition commences in Amsterdam on Nov. 9--conceived as a forum for developers and execs to share information and insight on the future direction of the mobile industry, this year's SEE event will almost inevitably shift its focus to the future of the Symbian operating system itself and how, or even if, the platform can continue to further its open-source mission following a series of crippling blows. Symbian is still the world's dominant smartphone OS, of course, controlling 41.2 percent of the global market according to data published in mid-August by research firm Gartner. But it was just a year ago that Symbian-based devices represented 51 percent of the global market, and its stature will continue dwindling: Within the last few weeks, handset makers Sony Ericsson and Samsung Electronics both stated they will no longer manufacture Symbian devices. While Sony Ericsson will continue its smartphone efforts on Google's Android platform, Samsung will emphasize Android as well as Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 and its own bada operating system.

Sony Ericsson and Samsung aren't the only ones abandoning ship. Last week, Lee Williams--executive director of the Symbian Foundation, the non-profit initiative charged with overseeing the platform--abruptly resigned his post, citing personal reasons for the decision. Williams headed Nokia's (NYSE:NOK) S60 organization prior to accepting the Symbian Foundation reins in 2008, a few months after Nokia acquired software licensing company Symbian Limited and announced plans to evolve the Symbian mobile operating system to its present open-source status; his future plans are unknown. Symbian Foundation CFO Tim Holbrow immediately took over the executive director post after Williams resigned, but reports indicate the task facing Holbrow isn't reviving the organization but rather wrapping it up. Citing sources close to the organization, The Register reports that Holbrow has been asked to wind down operations over the next six months, with Foundation employees already receiving redundancy package offers.

The Symbian Foundation would not confirm or deny the report, but stated its board is reviewing all options. "The future business strategy for the Symbian Foundation is still under review by the board," the group said. "As no decisions have been made, we will not be offering further comment." The Register adds that financial questions are likely at the root of the organization's problems: Along with Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Samsung represented Symbian's largest manufacturer partners--it is believed that all three device makers each contributed around $7.8 million to Symbian's coffers, leaving Nokia the only one still extending financial support. (The Symbian Foundation's budget reportedly totals about $28 million annually, fleshed out by contributions from members including AT&T, NTT DoCoMo, Vodafone, Adobe Systems, Orange and Visa.)

Even Nokia's commitment to Symbian is in doubt. Last week, the manufacturer said it will embrace the Qt cross-platform development environment as its sole application creation framework--moving forward, developers who build apps in Qt will be able to deploy their software across devices running both Symbian and the fledgling MeeGo operating system. Nokia adds it will create its own applications and UI in Qt as well, also committing to the HTML5 standard for web content and apps across both Symbian and MeeGo. "You can buy a Nokia smartphone confident that any improvements introduced later to the Symbian platform, such as the user interface, can be made available to download on your device as well. No need to wait for Symbian^4--the improvements we were planning for Symbian^4 will be introduced as and when they become available," writes Nokia Conversations editor-in-chief Phil Schwarzmann on the company's official blog. "In fact, we will no longer be talking about Symbian^3 or Symbian^4 at all--it will be one constantly evolving and constantly improving platform." Reports say about 100 Nokia staffers working on Symbian development in its Cambridge office have already received their walking papers.

A few weeks back, I spoke with Symbian Foundation senior vice president of global alliances Larry Berkin about where the platform goes from here. "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," Berkin said. "This industry needs a neutral, open-source solution. It really does." Berkin added that Symbian's much-criticized user experience will improve over time, stating "We just haven't gotten the formula right. We're still figuring this out." But is time a luxury Symbian can still afford? Its fate likely rests with Nokia: Not only is the company the operating system's largest remaining benefactor, but also, Nokia still relies on the platform for its mid-range devices. Nokia may well decide it's more sensible and more cost-effective to bring Symbian in house--it may even choose to abandon the open-source model, offering some kind of compensation to the IP stakeholders whose innovations are woven into its fabric. Either way, it's certain that even more dramatic changes are still ahead. The clock is ticking. -Jason

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