When will Symbian die?
Symbian is dead. Oh wait, it isn’t. Well, not quite. Perhaps just a bit. Buy Nokia Windows Phones. But wait, don’t stop buying Nokia Symbian smartphones!
The above seems to me like it’s a pretty accurate representation of the messages Nokia has been sending since February 11 of this year, the day when it announced that Windows Phone will be its primary smartphone platform in the future, and that “Symbian becomes a franchise platform” (don’t even try to understand, that phrase still makes absolutely no sense whatsoever).
Subsequently, we’ve heard here and there that Nokia’s great WP push will come in 2012. Hence, everybody kind of assumed that Symbian will be End-Of-Lifed (read: shot, killed, put out of its misery, etc.) around 2012 or 2013, with massive sales declines starting next year. At least that was the theory, that people will continue to buy Symbian devices this year, and they’ll only stop buying Symbian phones to buy Nokia Windows phones.
It turns out, surprisingly for Nokia and Mr. Elop, that smartphone buyers have internet access and can read news. So they found out about Nokia’s February announcement, and are slowly deciding not to buy Symbian anymore – because why invest in a ‘burning platform’ after all?
So this is funny, in a way. Nokia first declares Symbian dead, to make the ‘Western’ media happy (and by Western you should clearly read based in the US and UK). Then it realizes that if Symbian is dead, like, right now, then Nokia’s sales numbers and profits will abruptly go down. Hence all the no, it’s not really dead, okay it is, but not now, etc. attempts to spin this.
Amazingly, today is the first time we’ve actually heard a target for Nokia’s ending of support for Symbian. So all those 2012-2013 assumptions I’ve described above were just that – assumptions. Nokia didn’t bother to issue any official word on this until today, when Stephen Elop did in an interview for Nokia Conversations China (yes, Nokia Conversations China. At least the interview is in English. Wait, why is the interview on Nokia Conversations China in… English? I don’t know either, but this is hardly the avenue to announce such important things – in fact, this should have been announced on February 11).
So it’s like this: Nokia will continue to support Symbian until “at least 2016″ – about five more years. “Support” in this context means software updates, services, apps, the whole shebang.
At first, that seems like a drastic change from what Nokia has implied in the past (read: an end-of-Symbian coming a lot sooner). And sure, having devices supported until 2016 (though obviously the devices being released this year will not be) is nice. However, that still doesn’t tell us when exactly Nokia will sell its last Symbian handset. Supporting the platform until 2016 almost certainly doesn’t mean that you’ll see new Symbian phones pop onto the market in 2016, maybe not even 2015. If Nokia remains committed to how it’s been supporting Symbian phones up until now, that means that we could see the last Symbian device launch in 2014. Perhaps a low-end offering could even be launched in early 2015, since Nokia doesn’t usually support cheaper devices for more than 12-18 months. But that will clearly depend on whether the market will want a new Symbian smartphone in 2015, and my guess is it won’t.
If people are being turned off by Symbian’s demise today, imagine how they’ll feel in 2015. Heck, imagine where the smartphone world will be in four years! I mean, four years ago today the original iPhone was not shipping yet. Just think of how much has changed in four years – basically anything can happen in the next four.
And with Symbian not getting any low-level improvements from now on, I doubt that it will be able to compete with Apple’s and Google’s one new OS release each year. Or even Microsoft’s development pace. All of these mobile OS makers (and even RIM) may bring many new features to the table in the next four years, features that Symbian just won’t be able to match (which, indeed, will be the supreme irony, as in the past, one of the key strengths of Symbian compared to its competition was the sheer number of features it had).
Imagine that in 2014 we’ll have iOS 8 competing with Android 7 (probably) and Windows Phone 8.5 or 9. And by that time, Symbian will have slowly but surely become, at least in market share, quite irrelevant (you know, the US pundits were right! They were just a few years early).
An interesting fact is that the projected volume of Symbian devices yet to ship has apparently remained unchanged, as Elop didn’t even mention it in this tell-all interview. So that means that Nokia still intends to sell 150 million more Symbian handsets. That’s going to be 150 million devices over what… three years? Four? Who knows? Does Nokia even know?
Nokia’s Q1 2011 numbers have it selling about 24 million smartphones. That’s about 8 million per month, or 96 million per year – though those numbers are falling very, very quickly.
While it’s impossible to tell right now if the 150 million number will be reached by Nokia by 2016, 2015, or 2014, things will become a lot clearer towards the end of this year, and especially at the beginning of 2012, when Nokia will already have at least a couple of WP devices on the market. We’ll then see how much Symbian’s market share has been eroded by Android and iOS, and also if WP will do anything to further diminish it.
To sum up Elop’s statement: buy Symbian smartphones. Don’t worry. Just buy them.
Of course, less and less people will do that. And Nokia knows that. And it can’t really do anything about it. Scratch what I said above. This isn’t funny, it’s sad. Ah well, maybe WP will indeed be something worthwhile… next year.
Here’s the entire interview with Mr. Elop embedded for your viewing pleasure: