2010 Year in Review: Symbian--Alive, dead or just resting?

This mature OS came in for increasing criticism in 2010. While it still remains the leading smartphone OS, it is increasingly being relegated to the mid to low-end.

Its long-term supporters have begun to drift away, leaving Nokia as the only, albeit significant, force promoting the OS.

This provoked a flood of rumours, immediately quashed by Nokia, that it would adopt Android and/or Windows Phone 7 to supplement the company's OS portfolio.

Nokia's then head of its smartphone business line, Anssi Vanjoki, said that handset vendors adopting Android instead of developing their own OSs are only hurting themselves. "In the long run, consumers would start buying smartphones because of the OS and not the hardware."

Vanjoki then departed the company a few weeks after making this prediction.

However, the company again fired up speculation when it took the extreme steps by collapsing the Symbian Foundation, laid off staff and took development back in-house. It also announced that it would drop any future reference to Symbian^3 or Symbian^4--with the thought being that applications would be designed in the future to work both on Symbian and MeeGo products.

Another change announced was that Nokia would stop using a release-based model for the OS platform and instead adopt a continuous evolution approach for Symbian developments.

Perhaps triggered by this confusion, the CEO of France Telecom Orange, Stephane Richard, invited his counterparts from Vodafone, Telefonica O2 and T-Mobile to a meeting in October to discuss the joint development of common platforms for mobile devices. No details were made public if any initiative was agreed by the four operators.

Altogether an unhappy period for Symbian given its heritage and market-leading position carefully established over many years.

In the past few weeks and months, possibly helped by the infusion of new management, Nokia might have started to rescue the situation with some upbeat strategy statements and sales results for Symbian.

The company's VP for business smartphones, Illari Numari, said Symbian would remain "the enterprise platform Nokia uses today and going forward," and that MeeGo was only for "niche products, such as converged devices that were high end and more like a computer." He also claimed that Nokia would streamline its R&D work and build on its partnership with Microsoft for enterprise mobility. "We are a more cost-effective alternative to RIM," said the VP.

Numari added that the past quarter (Q3) was Nokia's "best ever in terms of smartphone sales", and that the vast majority of those sales were Symbian-based handsets.

So, are things looking up for Symbian? After several years financial analysts seem to be accepting that the OS does have a long-term future within Nokia, and have turned from being gloom-mongers regarding the company's outlook to mildly positive.