The Rise and fall of the Symbian Empire
Aside: I actually asked the verge for the longest time for a Symbian section (back when the site first started), but alas, that never happened, well, I guess with the purchase of Nokia, This post is going into the microsoft section.
So, with Microsoft’s eminent purchase of Nokia’s devices division (to be completed next year), and with 2016 drawing closer and closer every day, the final flame of Symbian shall soon be extinguished. And with it, a glorious chapter of technology history will slowly draw to a close.
For years, I have campaigned under the glorious Symbian Empire, loyally wielding my Nokia’s on one hand, and a rotation of Sony Ericsons, Samsungs, and Fujitsus in the other. For years, I have fought in the fanboy wars, holding the line against Apple supporters, leading the charge against Android, and bombarding Palm. So please, sit down and enjoy my old war stories, and let me tell you the story of how one of the greatest empires in tech was won and lost.
Part One: a tale of two boys and a wolf
Symbian came from humble beginnings. It was the late 80s, early 90s, and computers were just starting go mainstream. Remember, at the time, Microsoft’s mission statement was still "a computer on every desk". We had the great OS wars of the 80s and the 90s, with the titans IBM, Microsoft, and Apple clashing in a death match for the dominance of the PC operating systems. Of course, we all know of Microsoft’s great victory, IBM’s retreat to their castles built on mainframes, and Apples struggles for relevancy against the windows monopoly.
It was under such a turbulent background that Symbian was created. Of course, I could claim that Symbian was created by a great hero, who typed up Symbian with the severed limbs of his enemies, or that a wolf saved our hero, and pointed him to this glorious path of conquest and empire building. But alas, the truth is much less colorful, Symbian was birthed from an operating system called EPOC.
So in the late 80s, the PDA concept was slowly taking off. People loved having a little electronic device act as their personal assistant. And Psion, with a software platform called EPOC quickly found success in the PDA market. By the mid to late 90s however, Palm rolled along with their much better PDA platform, and quickly crushed Psion’s market dominance with their brilliant Palm Pilot.
However, EPOC did somehow make its way onto phones. The Ericsson R380 for instance, was a brilliant example of an early EPOC smartphone (you can find a review of it here). Sure, for us now, the Ericsson R380 looks crude, but we can obviously see the seeds of greatness in just a device, it was the technology giant whose shoulders all future smartphones stood on.
Symbian LTD. was formed in 1998 as a collaboration between Psion and a multitude of cellphone companies. And thus, development of the true Symbian OS started (side note: the Ericsson r380 was released after this, but was still marketed as a Psion EPOC device). It was from such humble beginnings that one of the greatest empires was built, one that will number billions strong, and power devices on every single continent.
Part two: the rise of Symbian
Symbian started to gain mainstream traction around 2001, the "super phone" of the day was the Nokia Communicator 9210/9290. It had EVERYTHING for its time, a color screen, an infrared port, and even the ability to send faxes! The laptop like duel display design was also extremely innovative for its time, and even now, I would love a phone with that form factor.
The story of Symbian as a mainstream operating system starts with the Nokia 7650. It was THE phone to have back when it was first released. It was Nokia’s first Symbian phone running the s60 operating system (the Nokia communicator 9210 ran 80. This software platform split would prove to be a major headache later on). The Nokia 7650 was also one of the first phones in history to have a camera, allowing Symbian to dominate cellphone photography well into the 2010s. Nokia’s marketing department scored one of the best product placement deals in history, putting the 7650 in Minority Report, immediately pushing Symbian into the mainstream.
Symbian was from the onset "fragmented by design". Symbian was the operating system kernel, and the only thing in common for many of the different Symbian handsets. On top of the Symbian kernel, the individual phone companies would create their own "software platforms", a layer between the kernel and the user that contained its own UI, bundled applications, drivers, and in many cases, their own APIs. I would actually argue that the fragmentation was an amazing design decision. By allowing each phone manufacturer to customize the OS deeply, it actually eased the hardware fragmentation.
Nokia released a multitude of different Symbian devices in all shapes and sizes from around 2002 to 2005. We had the famous fish taco N-Gage, the circular number pad phone, the camcorder phone, and much, much, more all based on Nokia’s s60 platform. Sony Ericsson had their innovative phone designs too, with their Symbian based UIQ platform.
During this period, Symbian led the smartphone charge, with more than 70% market share. Not a single challenger really posed a threat to Symbian’s dominance. Palm’s Treo line got beaten down into submission, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile line was crushed by the mighty Symbian, Blackberries were just BARELY holding on because of their BES technology, but honestly, Nokia’s communicator series and E series were just SO much better than whatever Blackberry can release, they were simply held back by the lack of push mail (well, Nokia admitted it, and licensed blackberry technology for the communicators, allowing them to work with BES)
Overall, it was a great time to be a Symbian fanboy. We had total dominance, new phones were coming out every single day, and many important technologies such as app stores were being developed first on our Symbian platform. Those were the days, where you can find a Palm fanboy arguing with a Windows Mobile fanboy, and you can instantly stop the conversation with a mere mention of Symbian.
Part three: the Pax Symbiannica
It was a cool September day in New York City when the cellphone world was changed forever. On September 26 2006, Nokia unveiled arguably the greatest phone the world has ever seen, it was so magnificent, Nokia’s marketing wasn’t able to call it a phone, but a multimedia computer!
The n95 changed everything. When it was unveiled, the presenter carted in a whole shopping cart of stuff, and proudly proclaimed that with your n95, you will never them ever again. You don’t want to believe me, a Symbian fanboy? Well just listen to what Paul Miller said:
"Nokia just dropped their complete fanboy specsheet of a S60 phone in the Nokia N95 today, including a 5 megapixel camera, integrated GPS, 802.11g WiFi, HSDPA, microSD, 150MB of internal memory and pretty much any other spec you could ever care to have stuffed into your phone by a Finnish "multimedia computer" manufacturer. The 2.6-inch QVGA screen should provide plenty of room to partake in all this specification glory, and there's a full-on 3.5mm audio jack to enjoy your multimedia in a convenient manner."
This was the shot across the bow for all the non-Symbian manufacturers. They all understood the message loud and clear, either adapt Symbian, or get crushed by the great Nokia. Many of the n95’s capabilities were simply impossible to clone on a non-Symbian platform.
Ballmer must have trembled when he saw the release of the n95, and he whipped his teams into motion to create an answer to s60v3. Well, of course, we all know how Windows Mobile 6.1 turned out. Ballmer’s armies just cannot form a coherent defense against the undefeatable Symbian legions, and HTC had to pull out of the multimedia phone race.
The n95 finally launched in early 2007, and soon after launch, it was setting sales records everywhere. Nokia’s 2006- 2007 lineup was just so immensely powerful, it was swallowing everything in its path. The N Series was actually seriously threatening camera manufacturers (especially the n82, with its unrivaled Xenon flash and imaging capabilities), MP3 players world wide was crumbling under the XpressMusic assault. People always say that the iPod was the No. 1 MP3 player, but in many markets, the Nokia XpressMusic was easily crushing the iPod, hell, Apple and Motorola reacted with the Rokr, the most pathetic attempt to challenge Symbian dominance ever.
2006- 2007 can be classified as the golden age of Symbian. Symbian devices everywhere was setting the world alight, spreading the smartphone revolution to every corner of the globe. Retina level displays were first introduced on Symbian with the Japanese OEMs like Sharp, Mobile payments were making huge headways, with the Tokyo Metro supporting mobile tickets on Symbian phones.
It was a great time to be a Symbian fanboy. Every single day we saw better and better Symbian devices come out at breakneck speeds. Nokia headed the charge, but Sharp, Fujitsu, Sony Ericsson, Samsung, and Motorola weren’t far behind. Every single day, we would see a new mouthwatering phone get released, and then promptly getting one upped by a new devices weeks later. The Motorola z8, Samsung Innov8, and Nokia E71 were all amazing phones released in short succession.
It was great to be a Symbian fanboy, we proudly proclaimed a new thousand year reich in mobile computer, a world where the whole world would acknowledge the infinite superiority of the Symbian platform. People should know when they are conquered after all, and with the launch of the Nokia n95, we Symbian fanboys proudly proclaimed Symbian Victoria!!!!!!
Symbian was big, Symbian was going to be everywhere. Symbian was going to become the platform that will power the future. Sony was considering to use Symbian for the PS3, Nokia was about to push Symbian into PCs. And with the increase of mobile capabilities year after year, we predicted that it would only be a few years until Symbian shall unleash an era of Post-PC computing (rhetoric that is curiously being revived today)
Of course, it was at this time when new threats appeared on the horizon. Sure, Apple announced the iPhone, but at most it was just a barbarian hoard far from the heartlands of Symbian. The most the unwashed iPhone cultists could do is to sit in coffee shops, and pretend to write their screen plays. I remember clearly, when Apple announced that they finally sold 4 million iPhones, we laughed and proclaimed that "4 million Nokias were sold in the time it took for me to read the announcement!"
Part four: Crossing the Rubicon
In 2008, the most curious thing happened. Nokia released their broadside of N-series devices, setting sales records everywhere. Samsung copied Nokia’s innovations from last year, and tried to trick a few people into buying their wares. Sony Ericsson, Sharp, and Fujitsu were battling it out in the hypercompetitive Japanese market.
But curiously, Nokia announced that they would acquire Symbian Ltd, and form the Symbian foundation. This amounted to what practically was a military coup. Nokia now took the reins of Symbian, and was free to steer it where they wanted, all under the guise of "open source".
Nokia at the time was led by the Spineless Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, aka the infamous OPK. He claimed proudly that with the new reorganization of Symbian, full time Symbian developers now outnumbered those who worked on Windows.
Of course, when Nokia took over, they promptly killed all the other branches of Symbian besides their own. UIQ was sent to the chopping block, all while OPK claimed that his army of minions will soon code up the best touchscreen user interface the world has ever seen.
Once Nokia, a hardware company takes over Symbian, we repercussions were easily felt across the empire. Soon, it became evident who really controlled Symbian, it was a bitch with four masters, the Nokia N team, E team, XpressMusic team, and the "numbered" team (aka, later on the C team). Precious effort was wasted on satisfying the every desire of the hardware design teams.
And of course, OPK was the shortest sighted CEO in technology. In his internal documents, it was very well documented that Nokia’s whole product line should consolidate to a single chipset to help them simplify their supply chain. The cheapest chipset was selected, and every single cost saving measure you can imagine was implemented. Combine this with poor industrial design (arguably because they were working with cheap materials and cheap manufacturing processes), and you have a recipe for disaster.
In 2008, Nokia released the Xpressmusic 5800, the first phone with the new touchscreen based S60v5. For its time, it was a decent phone. Although the touchscreen interface was extremely unintuitive, and obviously hacked onto the D-pad interface, the phone was pretty well reviewed and received. However, the good reviews were not actually because the interface was good, or that the hardware was stunning, many reviewers simply said that they can "see a glimpse of the future" in the 5800, confident that Nokia will fix all its flaws and hit a home run with the next iteration
Of course, back in 2008, the new touchscreen trend meant that there were many shoddy phones on the market. The Blackberry Storm was horribly buggy, and the screen was maddening. The HTC Touch Diamond had the buggy as hell HTC Sense (or did they call it touchflo), with a reactive stylus driven screen. The iPhone 3g was the best of the bunch, but iOS was lacking in critical functionality. Palm was still releasing phones on Palm OS 5, I really don’t know why they never used Palm OS 6.
Against such poor competition, the Xpressmusic 5800 actually faired quite well, selling millions and topping the charts worldwide.
Nokia felt confident in S60v5, and they quickly moved their whole product line to S60v5. The n97 was the real test for the new Symbian platform. And it failed miserably.
Part five: Civil War
The n97 was released with a new version of s60v5, with a new widget based home screen. Underneath the shiny surface, everything was wrong with the joke of a phone that is the n97.
Let’s start with the hardware. The internals were horribly underspecced. Sure, OPK was touting the phones new features like the FM transmitter, the OSB OTG, and the new high speed Micro-SD support, but under the hood, everything was lacking. The industrial design of the phone itself was shit. The goddamned lens cover actually scratched the lens when you open it! The keyboard was also horrible, with the off center space bar, and the sliding mechanism wasn’t the best on the market.
The technical specifications of the phone was dire, especially for a 700$ device in 2009. The n97 had the same 480 mhz CPU and 128 mb ram as the 5800, it didn’t have a GPU, the system disk space was tiny, and it relied on a reactive touchscreen. OPK had the genius idea of a "common platform" where every single Nokia phone would be built on the same chipset, and all the "value added" features were added to the phone later on, like how you can add a new sound card on the PCI bus of your computer. But of course, the bullshit specs were acceptable on the 99$ phone, but having the same thing on a 700$? Come on Nokia, if you want to rape me, at least pretend that I gave consent.
And then there was the s60v5 software. A normal n97 with normal usage will crash approximately 4 times a day. Of course, its battery life was pretty damned amazing, but it was only because the phone crashed whenever you tried to do anything! So you never did anything! The touchscreen interface was marginally better, but still horrible. And the phone was just SLOOOOOOW. It would take minutes for stuff to boot up, the touch keyboard lagged, and the phone was just jerky when you tried to scroll.
OPK of course just mobilized the Nokia army, and made the most inept excuses I have ever seen. He claimed that the "double tap to open" thing on the home screen was to reduce user error; that the lack of transition animations was to reduce user orientation. Fucking OPK, if he worked for Kim Jiong Un, he can spin mass starvation as an anti-obesity campaign.
And then there was OPK’s declaration of war against the rest of Symbian. Nokia went on a buying spree, and bought Navteq and a bunch of other small companies, they re-released N-gage, relaunched their app store, and opened Ovi Music for business.
Of course, none of these services were licensed to other OEMs, severely damaging the reputation of Symbian as a legitimate ecosystem. By doing so, people were forced to purchase Nokia Symbian devices, exactly what Nokia wanted, but detrimental to Symbian as a whole.
Why do I say this? During the S60v5 generation, Samsung and Sony Ericsson Symbian devices were so much better than Nokia’s Symbian devices it was ridiculous. The Saitio didn’t lag, the Omnia HD didn’t have a shitty touchscreen. The problem was, at the time, Nokia = Symbian, and Nokia was giving Symbian a bad name with their shoddy hardware.
The Symbian ecosystem wars of the s60v5 era had lasting repercussions. Nokia paid developers to develop for Nokia only, and they released the Nokia army to attack Samsun and Sony Ericsson. This was problemic, because instead of working for the betterment of Symbian as a whole, Nokia just ignored the external competition and focused too hard on dominating the Symbian ecosystem, while damaging Symbian’s credibility as a whole.
Exibit one: OPKs lies about the Symbian Roadmap
Part six: Tis but a flesh wound
The Symbian ecosystem war completely demolished efforts for a coherent response against the rising threats of Android and iOS. As the Android hoards slowly crept towards the gates of Espoo, Symbian’s collapse seemed eminent. But Nokia pointed at the sales numbers and kept insisting the Symbian was an orgasmic experience, the most thrill you will ever experience with your pants on.
But alas, the worthless OPK wanked while Symbian burned to the ground. But alas, in late 2009, even when the worthless n97 was demolished by the iPhone 3gs and Motorola Droid, one should not count Nokia out of the game, in fact, it was in such dire situations where Nokia released their greatest device ever, the Nokia 5230.
While the iPhone and Android was demolishing Symbian in the high end, Symbian’s kernel is fundamentally better suited for mobile than OS X and Linux. Remember, Symbian was originally designed for 256kb of ram and 1 MHz of CPU in mind. Nokia has arguably the strongest supply chains in the whole mobile industry, at one point they were able to achieve a 100% profit margin on a 25$ phone!
OPK’s stupidity actually did some good for Nokia in the low end. Nokia buys so many of the chipset that their prices are ridiculously low. So what Nokia did, was that they used the same chipset for their flagship n97, and put it into the 5230, delivering an unbeatable entry level experience.
The 5230 easily swept the low end. It launched at 200$, and the price soon dropped to 99$. At such affordable price, the 52** line quickly wiped out the pathetic low end androids, and the 5230 quickly became the world’s bestselling smartphone ever, with over 150 million units sold.
But alas, the 5230 quickly cheapened the Symbian brand, and OPK never did anything about the dire OEM relations within the Symbian Ecosystem. And soon enough, Samsung and Sony Ericsson abandoned ship, and joined the Android hoard.
Sure, the 5230 was one of the greatest phones ever, but in the overall scheme of things, it just felt like a Banzai charge against the machine guns of Android and iOS. Raw spirit and bayonets are no match against flying lead, and the human wave assault of the 5230 did little to stem the collapse of the Symbian foundation, and with it, the end of OPKs reign draws near. Nokia bought Symbian in house, and with it, kicked OPK out of Nokia.
Part seven: Swan Song
OPK was quickly disposed. Stephan Elop, the hero of the .com bubble and the protector of Office took the reins. But by this time, nothing could have been done to reverse the course set by the mad tyrant OPK.
The Symbian ecosystem has collapsed when Samsung and Sony Ericsson exited it. The whole empire split into the Western Symbian Empire, and the Eastern Symbian Empire, with Nokia pushing it in the west, and DoCoMo pushing it in the east. Hell, Symbian split into 2 different versions, Symbian ^3 for Nokia, and Symbian ^2 for Japan.
Symbian ^ 3:
Of course, by 2010, everyone with half a brain can see that the end was near. Sure Symbian was still the world’s bestselling mobile operating systems, but the truth was, the Nokia 5230 accounted for nearly 75% of all those sales!
When Symbian ^3 came out, its sales were pitiful. Sure, on paper Symbian sales were great, but in reality, the situation was dire. Symbian^3 only accounted for a tiny percentage of all the Symbian sales, as the majority was actually the firesale Symbian ^1 devices. Symbian ^ 2 and Symbian ^3 was completely incompatible, and was not able to support each other from across the ocean.
Now Symbian ^ 3 at launch was horrible. Jo Harlow (head or smart devices at Nokia) had to come out and publicly apologize for the pitiful state of the OS. Now interestingly, as much as OPK talked tough about "doubling down" on Symbian, truth was, development of the core operating system was never double downed.
Symbian developers for the longest time took it easy, they never had "crunch time", they never really went on a death march, they simply released whatever shit they had, and fixed the steaming pile after launch. They just worked their 30 hour weeks in their posh offices with their 6 week breaks, while the Symbian Empire crumbled around them. The state of Symbian ^ 3 at launch was arguably the saddest I have ever seen, hell, the hardware team managed to put NFC on the Nokia C7, but the Symbian team was so damned slow, it wasn’t even useable at launch! You had to wait 6 months for the patch to enable one of the biggest selling points of the phone.
So, we all know what happened. Elop and Nokia walked the plank, off the burning platform and into the shark filled waters. But alas, unlike Palm OS’s Centro, WebOS’s Veer, Blackberry 7’s 9320, Symbian’s swan song was some of the most magnificent ever seen. If fact, the swan song for Symbian ^ 3 was the legendary Pureview 808, the phone that still manages to come out on top in camera phone shootouts. The swan song for Symbian ^2 was the Fujitsu F 07C, a phone that was the highest specced phone that year, mighty enough to duel boot Symbian ^ 2 and windows 7.
The king is dead, long live the king!
As 2016 slowly crawls closer, Symbian shall soon be dead and buried. For years, I have fought under the Symbian banner, slowing beating back the Palm OS, Windows Mobile, iOS, WebOS, Blackberry, and Android fanboys. But alas, our great king has succumbed to a thousand wounds. Its time to put down the Symbian banner, and slowly transition to Windows Phone.
But alas, the Symbian faithful will never abandon our great operating system, the greatest there ever was. I will miss the days of the FM transmitter, and the days of cleaning the system disk. I will miss educating noobs about the infinite superiority of the Symbian kernel for mobile devices. But even when on the surface I have switched to a Lumia, when I will be seen every day in public laughing and smiling with a sexy, sultry windows phone, I will never, ever give up my Symbian devices. I will never give up my first love, and every day, when I retire to bed, I will pull out my Pureview 808, and reminisce about the time when we were at the top of the world, when all the fanboys were in awe of Symbian, and we will drink to the precious few months where even the Mighty Microsoft trembled at the mere mention of the Symbian name.