Nokia, Maemo, Symbian ditching thing explained

This week we’ve had a rather interesting rumor come to life and spread like fire. And,  like most of the rumors that gain traction, it had a lot of true things in it.

But it completely missed the real story.

The rumor was started by this post on Mobile Crunch and took a life of it’s own. It said:

“… Nokia is ditching Symbian soon, in favor of it’s own homegrown Linux based OS – Maemo

The rumor spread rather wide, even prompting the analysts from respected research firms send alerts to their clients about the topic and getting Symbian’s own David Wood to officially deny it.

There were a lot of true things about upcoming Nokia Maemo OS  in the original MC story. Why some “industry experts” latched on that small tidbit about “…eventual plan is to use Maemo to phase out S60 all together” and stupidly concluded that Nokia  is ditching Symbian, I have no idea.

Let’s start with the fact that that small tidbit is mostly true. Nokia is phasing out S60.  And it will happen not in some distant future, but in the next few months or even weeks.  But it will happen not due to the  new Maemo OS. It will happen because of Symbian. And because S60 IS NOT Symbian. It’s a user interface for Symbian OS.

As you probably know – Nokia has bought Symbian Ltd. a bit over a year ago, made it into a non-profit industry foundation and set it to opensource the whole Symbian OS. Nokia paid more then $400 mil for the privilege. And later gave Symbian all S60 software assets too (including all the stuff that went into S60 FP5 touch UI on Nokia 5800 and N97) to fold into a Symbian OS package to be released this fall.

So yes, the S60 brand is going away, and soon. The S60 itself, is not. It becomes a part of Symbian OS.

And why would Nokia go to all this trouble with Symbian Ltd., Symbian Foundation, opensourcing, S60 transfer, etc; if they were planning to ditch the OS all along? I know the money they paid for Symbian Ltd. may be a pocket change for Nokia. But $400 mil is $400 mil. If the plan was to move from Symbian to something else, it would have been much simpler to just leave Symbian Ltd. where they were, launch the new Maemo platform when it’s ready, and then stop making Symbian phones when they no longer need the OS. Leaving Symbian Ltd. to it’s own devices.

The fact is – Symbian is a darn  good operating System for the smartphones as we know them, and Nokia has no plans of abandoning it.  Most likely it will start moving it a bit down the value chain in their product portfolio towards mid-tier/mass market devices. Eventually displacing S40 devices with Symbian ones (just as S40 displaced  traditional Nokia phones of last century, relegating them to the lowly (albeit mass selling)  S30s somewhere in the 3d world, and would take even that niche from them soon). In fact, Nokia CEO has already told us some of that.  And, I think, Nokia 5800XM is the first real indication of the power of this approach.

But the key part about smartphones in the last paragraph was “ as we know them” . Because Nokia  doesn’t see this as a future in mobile, especially for their high end devices.

Nokia has been trying to brand it’s N-Series handsets as “multimedia computers” for eons now. The problem is, to almost  everyone else, they were more smart phones then computers. But today the pieces for this “mobile/computer” vision in Nokia are starting to  fall into place. This vision of a new class of a device,  something different both from current phone and current laptop/netbook, permeates all public presentations of Nokia execs . Here’s one quote from Anssi Vanjoki:

“It is important to understand that today we have three classes of mobile devices – ordinary mobile phones, personal computers, and also the third class, which are devices designed for a very wide range of functions that are always-on.

This last point (always-on) bears particular attention. They are different from personal computers, which are designed for use in sessions. These devices have a different architecture, and from that (always-on) perspective have nothing in common with those mini-notebooks that you were talking about…”

And for this new class of always-on, personal mobile computing device, Nokia may need a new OS – Maemo.  The one they have been working on for the last 5 years, together with the open source community. Built from the ground up, with no legacy problems of 10-15 year old codebase, which, some say, give the new entrants like Apple or Android a significant head start .

Contrary to previous Maemo based Internet Tablets, the new devices will have full phone functionality (oFono?), but computing/internet/social communication  features and services will take the center stage.

We probably have already seen the first device in this class – it’s Nokia N97. Yes, it’s Symbian based, probably because Maemo wasn’t ready, or Nokia did not want to spring too many surprises on us at once. But this is where I believe Maemo is headed and we should start seeing some of the devices pretty soon.

However, smartphones as we know them are also not going anywhere. In fact, their numbers will continue to grow even faster then they are today,  until, eventually, every single “dumb” phone out there becomes “smart”.

And Symbian will remain one of the most important mobile operating systems for years to come, happily powering hundreds of millions, and, maybe, even billions of handsets around. With Nokia still holding double digit market share among them.

Author: Stasys Bielinis

While I like to play with the latest gadgets, I am even more interested in broad technology trends. With mobile now taking over the world - following the latest technology news, looking for insights, sharing and discussing them with passionate audience - it's hard to imagine a better place for me to be. You can find me on Twitter as @UVStaska'

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  • HereAndNow

    Many/most of the major mobile OSes appear to be migrating to *nix:
    - Android/WebOS/LiMo/Moblin/Maemo/UbuntuMobile: Linux
    - iPhone: FreeBSD

    Android is likely to emerge as a dominant mobile OS and Nokia really should consider using its Symbian resources to quickly merge with Android.

    Several steps could be taken, to achieve this:

    1. Port the Dalvik VM to Symbian, so that existing Symbian devices can run Android apps.
    2. Develop Ovi apps for Android, so that ALL Android-based devices from ANY vendor can access/subscribe to Ovi services.
    3. For Nokia devices, replace Google's services with Ovi services & tailor the UI for a unique Nokia user experience.
    4. Consider developing a Symbian emulator, so that Android devices can run Symbian apps (until native Android versions are available).
    5. Extend Android to support X Server, as a first step toward full Maemo integration with Android.

  • http://www.staska.net Staska

    Agreed towards movement to *nix. Or at least to full open source (Symbian).

    As for Android emerging dominant mobile OS – That's a huge leap of faith
    today.

    Android itself is not a complete mobile OS for now. And there isn't a
    single fully functional Android device in the market yet (G1 is just a
    prototype/test device and Andy Rubin admitted as much). Even with all vendor
    and carrier commitments, it is yet to be seen how Android does in real life.

    Android has a very good shot of becoming an important mobile OS, but it is
    not even there yet, let alone on the way to dominance.

    That said, your 'write once run anywhere” is a long longed nirvana among
    developers, It won't become a reality anytime soon, unfortunately. But
    making it much easier to recompile apps to run on different platforms – this
    is starting to happen, and it should become a reality pretty soon. Nokia
    might even be leading the way here.

  • http://www.staska.net Staska

    Agreed towards movement to *nix. Or at least to full open source (Symbian).

    As for Android emerging dominant mobile OS – That's a huge leap of faith
    today.

    Android itself is not a complete mobile OS for now. And there isn't a
    single fully functional Android device in the market yet (G1 is just a
    prototype/test device and Andy Rubin admitted as much). Even with all vendor
    and carrier commitments, it is yet to be seen how Android does in real life.

    Android has a very good shot of becoming an important mobile OS, but it is
    not even there yet, let alone on the way to dominance.

    That said, your 'write once run anywhere” is a long longed nirvana among
    developers, It won't become a reality anytime soon, unfortunately. But
    making it much easier to recompile apps to run on different platforms – this
    is starting to happen, and it should become a reality pretty soon. Nokia
    might even be leading the way here.