A few years back, Symbian Ltd. looked like a goner. The private London-based software company -- launched with great fanfare in 1998 by the world's largest mobile-phone makers, including Nokia, Ericsson, and Motorola -- was foundering. It hadn't yet delivered promised software to power next-generation smart phones and pocket PCs. A hoped-for public offering that could have valued the company at more than $15 billion was scratched amid the tech-market bust. And archrival Microsoft Corp. was making headway in mobile devices, especially with the Compaq iPAQ handheld that captivated Europe in 2001. Symbian, which was founded specifically to counter Microsoft's push into portable gizmos, looked to be the Seattle behemoth's latest snack.
Thanks to the pragmatic leadership of CEO David Levin, however, Symbian has staged a comeback. Levin, who stepped into the top job in April, 2002, has led Symbian away from its original ambition to create a soup-to-nuts operating system for mobile devices. Instead, the company is now focused on providing just the basic internals, leaving device makers to choose what user system fits their needs. "The goal is to encourage diversity while maintaining a common DNA," Levin says. That's a marked contrast with Microsoft, whose shrunken version of Windows for mobile devices locks manufacturers into a Windows look-and-feel that may not be appropriate for every device.
The results of Symbian's shift are piling in. Revenues last year more than doubled, to $47 million. In this year's first quarter, says Canalys, a Reading, England market researcher, Europeans snapped up more than 1.5 million handhelds and smart phones, and 53% of them were running Symbian software, vs. just 24% for Microsoft. By the end of this year, Symbian's worldwide sales should top 12 million units. And by 2007, predicts London telecom consultancy Ovum, customers will buy 100 million Symbian-based phones -- five times the number running Microsoft. With licensing fees at about $5 per phone, that could make Symbian a half-billion-dollar company within four years. No wonder the markets are murmuring that a Symbian initial public offering is around the corner.
Born in South Africa into what he calls "a liberal Jewish household interested in human rights," the 41-year-old Levin spent his early years in Rhodesia before his family emigrated to England in 1965. There, he earned a degree in politics, philosophy, and economics from Oxford before getting an MBA at Stanford University. Levin did stints at Bain & Co. and Apax Partners and then in 1994 became the publisher of Institutional Investor magazine in New York. He switched gears again in 1999, joining British palmtop maker Psion PLC as CEO. Psion was one of the five founders of Symbian, and when its handheld business cratered in the face of competition from Palm Inc. and Microsoft, Levin leaped to Symbian. All the while he maintained a passion for human rights, traveling often with his family to developing countries as an ambassador for the British-based anti-poverty group ActionAid.
Dealmaking is another passion, and he's good at it. Under Levin, the roster of Symbian's industry investors has grown from the original five to include Siemens, Sony Ericsson, and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. Manufacturers responsible for more than 80% of the world's handsets are now investors in the company. Along the way, Levin also boosted the imputed value of Symbian: When Siemens joined up in April, 2002, its 5% stake priced the venture at $410 million. Ten months later, Samsung's $27 million investment for 5% of Symbian valued it at $550 million. Investors have poured nearly $300 million into Symbian, enough to fund the company until it hits profitability sometime in the next few years.
Levin isn't a vindictive person, but proving the doubters wrong certainly tastes sweet.