As once-mighty Symbian enters hospice, will it be missed?

Nokia refuses to say when Symbian shipments will finally end, but concedes latest woes can be traced to software's complexity

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Nokia wouldn't disclose the size of the worldwide Symbian installed base, though various research firms put the number above 250 million. The OS base had reached 100 million devices in 2006, about five years after the first open Symbian OS smartphone, the Nokia 9210 Communicator, was launched.

Symbian held more than 70% of the smartphone market in 2006, and then proceeded to decline to less than 4% in 2012, according to IDC. Symbian will claim less than 1% of the market at the end of 2013.

Symbian Ltd. first developed the Symbian OS for ARM processors. The OS was a next-generation of Psion Software's EPOC. Nokia became a partner with Symbian Ltd., Ericsson and Motorola in the development venture in 1998.

Motorola, Samsung, LG and Sony Ericsson all had built Symbian smartphones at one time, along with Nokia, but had gradually moved off the platform by 2010.

What was wrong with Symbian?

Several analysts seconded Nokia's Durrant contention that Symbian OS was getting too complex to develop effective software for smartphones. Analysts particularly cited Symbian's inability to open up the smartphone to new markets, such as music, video and apps.

"Symbian never had an ecosystem that could provide the derivative revenues that Android, iOS, BlackBerry and Windows Phone can. Those additional revenues these days are very important to phone makers," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates.

"Symbian was a difficult OS to program for and didn't have the richness or user interface of the more modern OSes. You couldn't have done an Angry Birds on Symbian seven years ago," Gold said. "If you ask developers about Symbian, they hated programming to it, because it's hard. And that matters, obviously."

Lessons from Symbian

Gold and others believe Accenture will likely let Symbian die so its ashes can be scattered on the dustheap of old OSes, like Windows 3.1 and MS-DOS. Even BlackBerry let its older OS die. It used QNX in the new BlackBerry 10 OS, Gold said.

"Everything has a lifecycle and there are a lot of OSes that in their day were the epitome of modernness," Gold said.

"The same thing could absolutely happen to Android or iOS in a decade, but who knows? They could be replaced by something revolutionary," he added.

Especially for smartphones, the longer-term future is hard to predict, as new wearable devices emerge such as Google Glass or watches with computing power that can work wirelessly.

"In 10 years, anything could happen," added Llamas of IDC.

"Just look at the last five years. There's been iOS and then Android and Tizen and Firefox and BlackBerry 10. During that time, WebOS came and went," he added.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His email address is

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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