Nokia bets its future on Symbian UI improvements

For a company that has lost its sense of direction, to say that 2010 will see Nokia emerge from near chaos by concentrating on improving the user experience appears somewhat ordinary and lacking real ambition.

But that's seemingly what the world's leading handset maker intends to do.

Its CEO, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, said at last week's Capital Market Day that Nokia "will drive user experience improvements, and the progress we make will take the Symbian user interface to a new level."

This commitment to the Symbian OS would appear to crush rumours that the company was on the verge of dumping the software, with Kallasvuo claiming that the open source OS has "reach and flexibility like no other platform, and we have measures in place to push smartphones down to new price points globally, while growing margins."

This bullish prediction might give the Symbian developer community a much needed boost, and send a sharp reminder to Apple, Google and RIM that the smartphone market is more than a three-horse race--assuming that Microsoft's attempts to enter the mobile OS market continue to slide.

Part of the message will see Nokia re-engineering the Symbian UI hopefully in time for a ‘major product milestone' planned for mid-year 2010, followed by another ‘major product milestone' before the end of next year.

Quite what these milestone products will be remains a mystery, although well-founded conjecture would point towards hybrid touchscreen and Qwerty devices. However, the release of the Symbian^3 OS is planned for 2010 - this is promised to be three times as fast as previous versions and will remove over 300 irrelevant or annoying user prompts.

But the big change to the UI will not happen until very late next year or more likely early 2011 when Symbian^4 becomes available. So, Symbian^3 is the software that will have to make a real difference, with concerns that this release, being simply an evolution as against a much needed step change, is a high risk strategy given the pace of OS developments from Nokia's competitors.

The company has also committed to launch its first Maemo 6 device in the second half of 2010, although this device is being targeted by Nokia at the high end mobile computing segment where the company expects to see significant growth.

Of course, Kallasvuo emphasised the continued push to grow Nokia's services business by expanding geographically and in partnership with more operators. It's true that the Ovi Store is, at last, reported to be gaining acceptance - but the challenges presented by other handset vendors, operators and, not least, Apple to reap these services revenues are making this an increasingly hard and long road to travel.

The company is also forecasting its share of the device market to be flat in 2010, compared with 2009, while indicating that the mobile device market will ship approximately 10 per cent more in 2010 than this year.

So, is Nokia betting its 2010 success on Symbian?

Having had a hugely disappointing 2009, Nokia must begin to get things right in 2010. Symbian is a proven, if somewhat mature, OS that has been a firm building block for the company. But relying on it to carry such a large organisation through 2010 will make for very nervous times for Nokia executives.-Paul