It's soul-searching time at Symbian. The smartphone operating system lost 15 percentage points of market share last year to competitors including Apple (AAPL) and Research In Motion (RIMM). Another cell-phone maker, Motorola (MOT), backed off from supporting Symbian software.
So Symbian, newly rebranded as the Symbian Foundation, is plotting a comeback. While Symbian still has the largest market share for smartphones, the operating system may soon be running on a wide range of other electronic devices, including netbooks, global positioning systems, e-readers, and Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs), handheld gadgets just larger than smartphones. "There's a lot of interest in netbooks," David Wood, a strategist for Symbian Foundation, tells BusinessWeek.com. "I've never been as busy and rushed off my feet in my entire life. We are seeing a lot of early experimentation." Cell-phone maker Nokia (NOK) acquired all rights to Symbian last year.
Appealing to computer makers
Wood is quick to caution that it's still not clear how soon Symbian will make its break into new machines and which ones will carry the operating system. But if successful, the strategic shift would pit Symbian in new ways against software vendors as varied as Microsoft (MSFT), Google (GOOG)-backed Android, and the open-source Linux Foundation. It would also bring Symbian into the orbit of additional electronics manufacturers other than Nokia (NOK), which today accounts for more than 90% of shipments of Symbian-based devices, according to analysts.
Symbian is embarking on a series of moves aimed at making itself more appealing to computer makers. For starters, it is tweaking the software to run more easily and cheaply on larger devices. "The goal is to open Symbian up to more manufacturers, because relying on just one vendor has only gotten them so far," says Ramon Llamas, senior research analyst at IDC.
New releases of the software, expected in the next year or so, will automatically adjust applications and images for larger screens—rather than just stretching them to fit a space, which can cause distortions, Wood says.
Symbian engineers are also ensuring the software is compatible with a wider range of chips. A team from Nokia has managed to make the software work on Intel's (INTC) Atom chip, which powers most netbooks, Symbian Executive Director Lee Williams announced in an Apr. 16 blog. Already used in netbooks, Atom is expected to be used eventually in MIDs, smartphones, and other mobile gadgets.
Currently, Symbian runs only on chips designed for cell phones and made mainly by Qualcomm (QCOM) and Texas Instruments (TXN). Such chips can also be used in netbooks, but Symbian needs to work on Intel's processors if its backers want to tackle a bigger portion of the growing market for small computers.
New devices: Netbooks and MIDs
Symbian is following in the footsteps of other mobile operating systems, including Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows and Google's Android, which works on netbooks and MIDs as well as smartphones.
Nokia could use its ownership of the Symbian rights to make a push into netbooks and MIDs, competing with PC makers including Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Dell (DELL), Acer and Asus. In February, Nokia CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo told a Finnish journalist that the company won't rule out joining the netbook race. While sales of smartphones that can connect to the Net and handle e-mail are expected to surge 18% this year, sales of certain low-priced netbooks are expected to soar 50%.
In part, Symbian's move is a defensive one. Some analysts speculate that increased popularity of devices such as MIDs will eat into growth of smartphone sales. "Smartphones are starting to work like PCs, and PCs like smartphones," says Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, which is supporting a rival MID operating system called Moblin. "And netbooks and MIDs are actually [often] cheaper than smartphones." In a recent survey of 1000 U.S. adults by consulting firm ABI Research, almost 50% of respondents said they may buy an MID instead of a smartphone. MIDs could displace smartphones the way smartphones displaced Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), says Philip Solis, principal analyst at ABI. "People want to use the Internet on their phones, and they are moving to bigger devices," he explains.
Symbian's move into other devices may also be precipitated by wireless carriers' demands for new flavors of machines. To encourage greater wireless data usage, service providers have recently begun carrying and promoting a broader array of devices, such as netbooks. In Western Europe, wireless carrier stores already account for as many as 25% of all netbooks sales, according to IDC.
Nokia wouldn't comment on whether it may enter the new device categories. In February, "Kallasvuo responded that we never say never and that we consider and continue to evaluate a range of business opportunities actively," a Nokia spokesperson says in an e-mail. "There was no further comment or speculation on this topic specifically." But at a Nokia general meeting on Apr. 23, Kallasvuo said that, with the help of Symbian, Nokia plans to broaden the definition of the smartphone by expanding its features into new product categories.
To be sure, Symbian still has a ways to go. One challenge: Most netbook users prefer familiar Windows menus; more than 90% of netbooks sold today run Windows software. "While we can't comment [on] Symbian's plans, we remain confident our partners and consumers will continue choosing Windows," Don Paterson, director of marketing for Windows client at Microsoft, says via e-mail.
Symbian also needs further retooling so that it works as well on Intel's Atom as it does on other chips. "But I imagine that's the sort of thing a wider community [of developers] will want to get its teeth into," Wood says.
Kharif is a senior writer for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore. With Jack Ewing in Frankfurt.