Interview with Symbian's David Wood: We can match iPhone's success

The Goliath of the mobile world, Nokia, is holding an event for its partners today, that will likely further outline the action plan for its phone operating system, Symbian, for the near future.

The Symbian Partner Event, as it’s called, takes place just two days after Nokia finalized the complete acquisition of Symbian, and is significant because it comes at a time when Nokia is under immense pressure from competing mobile platforms.

Right now, the coolest apps — whether they are mindless games or sophisticated language recognition software — are being developed for those new, shiny iPhone and Android platforms. Nokia will need to show how Symbian can offer a platform that is just as good at attracting the most enterprising developers. The finalization of the acquisition of Symbian means Nokia can finally start implementing changes.

At the Mobile 2.0 conference at the beginning of November, Symbian’s EVP and Head of Research, David Wood, gave a keynote speech previewing Symbian’s plans. I sat down with him to discuss those plans. The key take-away: While he says he respects platforms like Android or the iPhone, he says he firmly believes that Symbian will also prove itself as a platform and a consumer brand within the next 12-18 months.

VentureBeat: Why the 18 month time horizon?

David Wood: Our move to open source was announced in June this year, and we said it could take up to two years to complete it. The next 12-18 months will be a time of mobile operating systems proving themselves. Perhaps three or four operating systems will survive this challenge.

VB: Will there be one dominating operating system?

DW: The industry will not allow it to happen. Today Symbian has a market share of 60-70 percent of all smartphones. Over time we want to have 60-70 percent of all phones — I think that’s a possible future in due course. I don’t think it will get much higher than that percentage because otherwise we will get lazy and complacent and innovation will stop. So it is good that there are one or two powerful OSs to keep innovation alive.

Look to what happened with browsers. Innovation was very high when Netscape competed with Internet Explorer. Then we had a phase with Internet Explorer dominating. Internet Explorer improved, but not much. Now they improve much more with Firefox around. That’s what’s happening with mobile platforms, too.

VB: That positive outlook for Symbian is in contrast to what many in the Valley believe. Techcrunch’s Mike Arrington is on the record as saying that “Nokia and Symbian are irrelevant companies at this point.”

DW: I wrote a reply to Mike Arrington’s piece on my blog. Mike Arrington does not see the growth potential or the novelty that’s coming into Symbian. Then later there was another piece on Techcrunch in which they talked about the statistics of the iPhone sales and how Apple will overtake Symbian in 10, 20 years or something like that. So I analysed that, too.

VB: So how do you explain that perception?

DW: Symbian has never tried to be a consumer-visible brand. Historically, we’ve put our effort inside the industry. It costs a lot of money to develop a consumer brand. Most of the mass media have not heard about Symbian. There are other operating systems which have got much more public visibility.

VB: Good point. So what you’re saying is that you’re competing as a business brand against consumer brands. So with your decision to go open source, you’re deciding to become a consumer brand?

DW: Yes, exactly. Also, it’s early days of Symbian’s effort to start a dialogue with the (Silicon) Valley community. Also, people do not seem to be impressed with our market share argument that much. Market share does not impress people because they think that the market share is changing. In fact, it’s possible that Symbian’s market share can become small.

VB: But developing for Symbian is much more difficult and costly than developing for the other platforms.

DW: Historically, people said that Symbian’s not so good as some other OSs. Symbian is a 14-year-old operating system. We’ve been aware in the last two, three years that this needs attention. Therefore we have been investing appropriately.

What disappoints me is that people are not more aware of the exciting changes within the Symbian world. There are a lot of innovations and developments happening within Symbian. We’ve been re-inventing over time. Two years ago, we completely changed our kernel. That kernel handled real-time differently. We changed the security model for the platform. Recently we brought in a new database model. We brought in a whole new bluetooth architecture. And most recently we brought in a whole new architecture for graphics and whole new architectures for IP networking.

So there’s a whole lot of stuff happening here. There are also tools which are being enhanced. We believe that these investments will start to affect sales in due course, too.

VB: Let’s talk about Symbian’s move towards open source.

DW: The source code will be released under two different licenses. Part will be open source, under the Eclipse Public Licence. This part has no license fee and is accessible to everyone. The other part will be community source, under an interim Symbian Foundation Licence. This is also royalty free, but there is a small contract that companies have to sign, and a small annual fee of $1,500. I expect a large community to take advantage of this.

VB: You’ll hardly get any “wow” with that, if my judgment of market expectations is correct. People may say “yeah, they are moving, but they don’t have a chance”.

DW: I think that what happened is that people heard, “Symbian is going open source and this will take two years.” They responded: “Two years? That’s too long!” I think these people haven’t heard what’s happened in the meantime with our program. So, there’ll be a first software release midway through the first half of 2009. And that will be stuff people will be able to experiment with. For example, it will let them change some of the applications on their phones. That’ll only be a start, though. And as soon as possible, more stuff will be moved in there. And even the stuff which we cannot open source will be much easier to access.

VB: Is there more focus on the application or on the platform side?

DW: The people who wanted to modify the platform had a particularly difficult time. That’s what will be coming out big time from March/April onwards.

VB: How’s the short-term outlook?

DW: Nokia will continue to do some very handsome revenues from their devices in the near future. Nokia devices offer fantastic functionality. The E71 is receiving a lot of rave reviews.

VB: I like the E71, too. But for you to convince mobile startups, something else needs to happen. You need to create and market a device that has the iPhone effect. The iPhone has amazing usage effects. That looks excellent in the Excel sheets of startups that need to report to their investors. That’s why these startups are preaching it. You’ll be accepted if there is a Symbian device driving business as much as the iPhone does. These people care less about how the touchscreen is pretty, but much more how it affects their business.

DW: It’s worth analyzing the various features which have driven the iPhone web browsing stats so high. And a lot of them aren’t just iPhone functionalities. McKinsey did a recent report. For example, the size of the screen makes a big difference — the larger the screen, the more people use it for browsing. The iPhone was kind of radical and the screen was much larger than people thought could actually be put into a phone. It was a bold move that Apple did. That’s one of the reasons why browsing is so successful. Another factor is the data plans which go with the iPhone. Then there’s the touchscreen. Again, Apple did a bold move there. Gestures — pinching is great for browsing. Finally. they’ve got a very good web browser on it. There’s a very similar web browser on the Nokia phones, though.

So I think features that have driven the web browsing stats on the iPhone can be replicated on other devices.

VB: What do you think of the app store model, particularly the Android and the iPhone app stores?

DW: Other platform can create app stores, too. They can then see what worked well with these app stores. And they can reflect what has gone wrong and what has gone well with other app stores. That includes app stores from private companies like Handango or Handmark. You can be sure that the Symbian world will have an enhanced app store, too. The Apple app store has been a giant step forward in usability and success, let’s be clear.

VB: Chrome, Android. When you develop for Android, you can develop the SDK, you’ve got a second option with Chrome/Gears and a third one with webkit. I know quite a few people who are very intrigued about that. Some people even say that for Google the Chrome/Gears initiative is becoming more important vis-a-vis Android itself. So what’s your take on the mobile browser?

DW: Recently, Lee Williams was announced as the Executive Director of the Symbian Foundation. He said that there were four things he was mostly pushing for. One we’ve already discussed, Symbian being the most complete and competitive mobile platform. Two is exactly what you’ve mentioned. We must go to the forefront with highly capable web runtime. We already have the assets for that. We must make sure that this gets finished and highlighted. There’s the webkit, there’s various other technologies. Gears, by the way, Google offers that to HTML5 as an addition because they want to be adopted by other platforms as well. So we’ll implement all the relevant standards quickly at the Symbian web runtime platform, too.

VB: Are there any platform wars?

DW: Collaboration while competing is the angle we have on that. If I look at my Nokia phone, right on the front screen here are Google applications. Up here is Google Maps and Google Mail. These applications run very well indeed on Symbian phones. By the way, it’s not just that. Here I’ve got BlackBerry Mail, which is another example of collaborating with a competitor. I also might have Microsoft Exchange, which is well supported by Symbian, too. It’s better for the industry to work together than to have platform wars. There are casualties in platform wars and they’re usually the customers. The most important thing is that users are impressed by what they get. Users don’t want to know this platform is better than the other one. They want to know if ‘that phone’ is good enough for them and that requires collaboration between platforms.

VB: How come we’re hearing so little about all that from Symbian?

DW: One reason why you’re not hearing about us is that we are in a transitional phase. We are waiting for an approval of the acquisition deal [Editor's note: that happened two days ago, after this interview was conducted.] You are not allowed to pre-suppose the conclusion. Otherwise the authorities which need to approve get upset. Until then you can only do some planning. A lot of decisions are being made right now. There’s a lot, lot more we are thinking about. We can’t talk about it [until the approval is in].

VB: What do you hope to achieve with Symbian Partner’s World?

DW: At the Symbian Partner’s World you can talk to partners about their experience in developing with Symbian OS. Hopefully, some partners will be able to tell you that things have gotten better than before.

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