Symbian accelerates open roadmap to reverse falling share

The Symbian Foundation, which will manage the operating system's transition to open source, has announced an aggressive roadmap - just in time, it seems, since the OS is losing ground in the nascent smartphone market.

The Symbian Foundation, which will manage the operating system’s transition to open source, has announced an aggressive roadmap – just in time, it seems, since the OS is losing ground in the nascent smartphone market.

Symbian has been dominant in the smartphone OS market, and for 2008, retained market share of over 52% (by units sold to end users) according to Gartner figures. But this was down 6% on the year before, in a total market up 14% to almost 140,000 units (according to the Gartner definition of ‘smartphone’). And in the fourth quarter, Symbian’s share slid below the 50% mark, down 21.6% year-on-year to 47.1%.

This is not a surprising turn of events – Symbian was bound to lose the dominance it acquired when it was virtually the only smartphone OS apart from Windows Mobile, as the market matured and new challengers arose, with Apple entering the sector, RIM moving to 3G and Linux shifting up the food chain with high end implementations like Android and LiMO. The big winners in 2008 were Mac OS X, up 245.7% to 8.2% market share as the 3G iPhone took hold; and RIM, up 96.7% to 16.6% share, overtaking Windows for the number two slot.

Perhaps worryingly for Symbian, which is pinning its plans to increase its lead again on open source, the open source platforms were losing ground in 2008, against the closed single-platform offerings like iPhone, BlackBerry and PalmOS (up 42% to gain 1.8% share in 2008, ironically enough, considering the launch of Palm Pre marks its deathknell and the Pre will run a Linux variant, WebOS). Apart from Symbian, the only other smartphone OS to lose share was Mobile Linux, down 4.2% to just over 8% share – however, the fourth quarter saw a leap of 19% on the same period in 2007, to 8.4%, presumably on the back of the Android G1 launch and, to a lesser extent, LiMO activities.

So Symbian is fighting back, with a clear eye on the midyear launches of a host of Android phones, the Palm Pre, and new iPhone and BlackBerry models. It has accelerated its release program for its open source software and for the Series 60 developer platform inherited from Nokia. The ambitious plan will see up to give different Symbian releases under development at any one time, with the first release – called Symbian^2 – to be “functionally complete” by mid-2009 and “hardened” by the end of this year. At this point, Symbian^3 will be appearing in its initial version. Symbian^2 will be based on Series 60 release 5.1 and will be followed by updates about every six months.

The Foundation says all of the big five phonemakers are committed to models based on the software, though apart from Nokia, the individual vendors have not released any details on timescales or product profiles. It is likely that a wave of Symbian^2 products will start to hit the market in the first half of 2010, with some early movers, especially from Nokia itself, appearing in time for the 2009 holiday buying season.

“The intent is to ‘timebox’ each release by fixing the functionally complete data and including only features that deliver in time at a reasonable stability level,” wrote David Wood, Symbian’s executive VP for research. “This is the same principle that has worked so well with integrated release of Symbian OS in recent years.” He said it will be up to manufacturers whether users of current Symbian-based handsets will be able to upgrade to the open version. Although the program may sound complicated for developers to track, it will allow vendors to react quickly to changes in market demands, and include new functionality in an agile way, says Symbian.

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