Can mobile OS leader Symbian keep up with rising competition from the likes of Apple, Microsoft and RIM? Natasha Lomas speaks with company CEO Nigel Clifford.
Nigel Clifford is CEO of mobile OS maker Symbian, the market leader in the smart phone operating system space. The 49-year-old CEO, a Cambridge University graduate who also has an MBA from Strathclyde University, joined Symbian from another telecoms software business—Tertio Telecoms—and has also worked at Cable and Wireless, heading up its UK operations, and at BT where he held a variety of management roles.
Earlier this year—and some three years after Clifford joined Symbian as chief exec—the company announced it would be going open source, shifting from a proprietary business model to one that offers access to its millions of lines of code to developers everywhere via the Symbian Foundation. Or as Clifford puts it: "At the heart of [this decision] is a belief that the power of many is better than the power of the few and that by making ourselves open we then have the opportunity to use millions of brains who perhaps previously were held a little bit distant from us."
silicon.com caught up with Clifford recently in his loft-style office at the company's Southwark HQ in London to discuss the finer points of going open source; the challenges posed by mobile newbies like Apple and Google; how to build 'usability' into an OS; and how a humble mobile app helped him best his two teenage boys in a triathlon.
Symbian's history is a long one, for the tech industry. The company was established a decade ago by Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia and Psion, and by 2006 there were 100 million Symbian phones in the market—a figure that has more than doubled two years later as the smart phone market continues to grow year-on-year.
Today the company remains undisputed market leader in the smart phone space, largely owing to the strength of Nokia—the world's number one handset vendor—which uses the Symbian OS. But Symbian knows the mobile game is changing—as the CEO writes on the company website: "Our market today is very different from the one we've been operating in successfully in the past 10 years. We're clear that powerful competitors are vying for this space."
And while these "powerful competitors" are not name-checked on Symbian's site, they are very familiar brand names indeed—Apple, BlackBerry, Google, Microsoft—all encroaching on its territory.
According to analyst house Gartner, Symbian claimed well over half (57.1 per cent) of the smart phone OS market in Q2 2008, followed a distant second by BlackBerry-maker RIM (17.4 per cent), after which comes Microsoft's Windows Mobile OS with 12 per cent. However the stats also show Symbian's lead is shrinking. Back in Q2 2007 Gartner gave Symbian 65.6 per cent market share—which means the company has seen a not inconsiderable 8.5 percentage point drop in market share in a year. And rival platforms continue to cut bigger slices of the pie—most notably BlackBerry-maker RIM that has seen an 8.5 percentage point increase over the same period.
Asked why the company's growth has been slowing, Clifford takes a 'glass half full' perspective. "The smart phone is still the fastest growing marketplace in mobile... and we're still market leader there, want to remain market leader—60 per cent of phones sold in this sector in the last 12 months had Symbian inside them," he begins.
But he concedes there have been 'regional differences'—or "particular patterns in different marketplaces". He points, by way of example, to government/regulator intervention in the Japanese market that has removed generous subsidies for high end phones, meaning dramatic price rises for consumers and a knock on effect for mobile companies (something that has also affected mobile maker Sony Ericsson).
"Everyone who's got a strong market position in Japan has seen growth slow," he says philosophically. "Conversely we've seen in other markets significant growth—in the US there's been significant growth and we would like to see more market share in the US. So some of this is very regional."
Misbehaving markets aside, Clifford's still resolutely upbeat about what tomorrow will bring Symbian: "Our growth depends on shipping lots of new products and what we've got now is a pipeline of 90 products—the biggest pipeline we've ever had—which are waiting to go out through the door."
If Symbian has historically been bound up with the fate of Nokia, part of the unspoken rational behind the creation of the Symbian Foundation is to go beyond Nokia, which is also facing the challenge of more and more determined rivals, to bring new users to—and perhaps even create new uses for—the Symbian software platform. Even if, in the short term at least, this means getting closer to its Finnish partner as Nokia buys up all Symbian shares and then bequeaths its code to the Foundation.
"I can just speak for Symbian [rather than the Symbian Foundation as a whole] but probably over the last 18 months or so we've been thinking very hard about how we engage with developers," Clifford explains. "How we engage with partners, how we get more people using the code. And also how we release the opportunity that's out there—we've got 225 million phones out there running Symbian. That's a huge opportunity for a developer—if they could get everyone who's taken an app, [to] pay a pound then all of a sudden they become a rich person."
Under the current model, Symbian charges a royalty for use of its software and requires its partners to sign up to a licence agreement. It is this business model which will be swept away by the Symbian Foundation, thereby removing a hurdle preventing more developers from using Symbian software, according to Clifford.
He tells silicon.com: "[The royalty business model] was kind of a barrier which in the case of the partner was probably not financial, it was just overhead. So if you were a hobbyist or a small part of an R&D team just getting to the starting point of having the code in your hands was an effort. And the one thing that we don't want to do is put effort and barriers in the way. So that was one of the reasons—let's get these hurdles flattened and allow people to experiment."
The Foundation will also resolve another barrier as it will unify all the different flavours of the Symbian OS into one platform. "[Previously] developers could have been put off by the fact that even though [Symbian] was a very large marketplace there were these elements of overhead of writing for multiple UIs [Symbian OS, S60, UIQ, MOAP]," he explains. "Every time you put a hurdle in the way then that's another bump, which means well maybe [a developer will say] I don't want to go there."
The company claims to have notched up an estimated four million developers in its 10 years of operating. And Clifford believes the Foundation will be able to hold its own in the competition for developer mindshare, even taking into account Apple's faithful and Google's brand clout "This [Symbian] is where the volume is, and this is where you will get the biggest population across the world using your product... So would you rather have a very broad marketplace or a very narrow marketplace?" he points out.
Asked whether going open source is the best strategy to survive in an increasingly crowded marketplace, Clifford is unequivocal: "Yes. We obviously think so. And the reason being that for most of our partners the OS isn't what they specialise in or make their money from. It is a really important ingredient... and it's the connection point with the developer world.
"So if you put that to one side and then think what does the consumer want? They want very innovative products created to high quality using the best ingredients. So for us to keep an ingredient on the top shelf or locked away seems counter to what the consumer's actually wanting."
Beyond the mobile
Freed by the Foundation, the CEO sees no reason why Symbian software might not end up being applied to non-mobile hardware, such as a set-top box, say, or an e-book reader, camera or navigation device.
"That's one of the really exciting things—now there isn't a point of control or a point of 'we will only allow Symbian to be used here'," he says. "We are saying it can be used anywhere that is decent, legal and truthful. It should be available for that experimentation, so you could have someone who's looking at putting together components for a unique product offering or service offering and we just become one of those components.
"You could see developers saying, 'Well I know this [Symbian software] works with cameras because they're on phones so why don't I take this and then I'm going to come up with a whole new camera concept using this mobile OS' or 'I know it works with navigation—because a third of our products had navigation on last year—so I can be confident and take this fragment and go and play with this in a navigation context.' So it's interesting that the output now becomes two ways."
But of course the Symbian Foundation is also all about putting pressure on the competition.
"I imagine that there are quite a lot of strategy teams [in rival companies such as Google and Microsoft] at the moment putting their heads together on this and working out what this move means for them and whether this is an inevitable transition in the industry," says Clifford, adding: "Whenever something changes in the competitive world it puts pressure around that world to respond react anticipate the next move. So people will be feeling destabilised by what's happened, I'm sure."
The Foundation will consist of a board of 10 people—drawn from the founder members (AT&T, LG, Motorola, NTT DoCoMo, Nokia, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, STMicroelectronics, Texas Instruments, Vodafone)—as well as an overall leader (yet to be appointed). It will also have a number of "sub-groups", which Clifford says will be "looking at features and architecture to make sure it's consistent; looking at roadmap; and looking at UI [user interface] development".
While founder members will have developers delivering code into the Foundation—including initially and most obviously the keystones of the Symbian OS: user interfaces S60, UIQ and MOAP(S)—they won't be able to dictate how code is used. "Ultimately what comes into the Foundation—what it can offer—will depend on the community, so it's a very different model from a standards body or a code repository," explains Clifford.
Road to open source
Symbian's road to an open source future began in October/November last year, according to Clifford, after the company's annual strategy round. "There were probably half a dozen of us in the strategy team and the leadership team who were beginning to think a lot about what's the future of competition in this marketplace, what do we need to do to be able to compete effectively, how do we take this to the next stage, how do we engage more actively with more developers across the world, how do we free up that 200 million devices for experimentation—all of that," he says.
"And coincidentally we bumped into other people coming from other companies who were thinking about these same kinds of things. And through a series of conversations that got developed and developed and then ultimately in June we got to the point where the 10 board members were in agreement and we could make the announcement on the 24th. So it wasn't the planning of five years but it wasn't the planning of five days either. It was kind of neatly in between."
Asked whether the Foundation is inadvertently giving a window of opportunity to rivals such as Google by only committing to make its code available to developers "over the next two years", Clifford says developers can, in practice get their hands on it now.
"At the moment we are shipping tens of millions of devices which are effectively using Foundation code because we are providing Symbian OS and S60 is being put on top or UIQ or MOAP and for the last three years we've had a very strict compatibility promise—precisely for the developers."
He adds: "We do maintain very strict compatibility. So if you're a developer and you want to develop for the Foundation then you can do it today. People are doing it today. And if you develop something for Symbian 9.1, 9.2, 9.3 then it will still work when you get to the Foundation 'code' as that is made complete and then released as a complete package over the next couple of years."
Sizing up the rivals
While the company has clearly come to a decision about the merits of an open source business model, Clifford is dismissive of mobile Linux efforts, such as the rival LiMo Foundation. "In terms of mobile Linux I'd rather be where I am than anywhere near mobile Linux," he says. "If you look at the fragmentation, if you look at the amount of time it's taken anyone to produce anything usable with mobile Linux and the expense that they've gone to to do that... "
When it comes to Windows Mobile, Clifford believes its recent successes—in growing market share, at least—have been confined to niche areas, especially what he describes as "enterprise US", adding: "If you look more broadly at where they're active it's far more patchy and it's not yet apparent that it's broken through into the consumer world in that fashion."
And asked for his view on the iPhone, the Symbian chief also reaches for the word 'niche': "I think it's been an interesting example of what a single focused company can do with a single focused product. And that's interesting but it's like saying 'well Bentley have produced a fantastic car, why aren't all cars like Bentleys?'. Well some manufacturers manage an entire portfolio and that's for different consumers wanting different things at different times with different price points.
"I'm sure there will be niche products forever, there will always be niche products. Always have been, there always will be. But what we're about is providing the biggest possible opportunity to manufacturers and to developers."
So how does a mobile OS company go about building 'usability' into its wares—something Apple's iPhone has of course been lauded for—and is this even something an OS company needs to worry about?
"At an OS level, one could take the view that we don't really interact with the consumer it's not really anything to do with us. We'll let the UI guys worry about that or the web kit guys or whatever but that isn't true," says Clifford. "We can have a profound effect on how the customer perceives this. So we do a lot of work around constraints. What we want is a constraint-free environment for those UIs and those application guys to play in."
He adds: "There is now a very clear call to action around engaging the consumer and making it not just a transaction but actually an experience. And a lot of people are now talking about that as being the end goal—actually enjoying interacting with the device."
Constraints that can limit the enjoyment of a mobile user include areas such as power, memory and data throughput, says Clifford—all areas Symbian has been working to improve.
In the area of processing power and battery life the company is putting symmetric multiprocessing into mobiles. "[This] means that you'll get far more of a graduated use of power and processing inside the device," Clifford explains. "It's never been on [mobile] devices so we are now putting this into our versions which will begin to hit the market over the next 18 months."
He adds: "The demand for battery power is rising probably one, two, three times faster than the capacity. So [battery life] is a lot about how smart can you be, rather than just more power because that is not going to happen unless you start carrying very bulky products around."
When it comes to memory, he says Symbian has just put SQL Lite onto devices so "you can carry around the whole of Wikipedia on your device if you want to", adding: "Let's not constrain people through memory."
And on data throughput Clifford says the company is looking towards 4G, LTE and WiMax, and has also rearchitected its IP stack (now called 'FreeWay'). The CEO also points to Symbian's efforts—via its ScreenPlay tech—to improve the graphical experience for users and ensure UI effects are more easily integrated.
The point of all these tech investments, says Clifford, is to "get the OS out the way". "You do not want people sitting there waiting for the OS to do something. That's really the job of the OS—to be the traffic cop, directing all this stuff and not getting in the way."
But there are two sides to the usability coin—and Clifford stresses the importance of focusing on what the user wants and also thinking about market requirements.
He says: "We've always had a technical committee—so we've always met with our users on a regular basis. And we've also introduced a thing called market requirements [to ask what are the] market issues that we're solving here[?]... [to] make sure that we're all clear about this is where we're going, this is how we're doing it... Getting our engineering teams working very closely with our product management teams who are working very closely with our users is also one way of just making sure that the user experience and that usability is kept to the forefront."
What's to come
Looking ahead, Clifford believes developments in mobile screen technology could be a key development over the next few years: "One of the [mobile] technology frontiers of the next three to four years is the whole screen and display characteristics and you could anticipate having miniature displays or miniature projectors which could begin to break out of the whole constrained screen size so [a mobile could have] a mini projector which means all I need to do is tip it up and all of a sudden I've got all of my photos [displayed full size]."
Asked which is the best mobile app he's seen, the Symbian chief reveals his sporty side: "I've just done a triathlon with my two boys [who are aged 17 and 15] and beat them... And I was talking to one of the Symbian guys—he is a very keen oarsman, a rower, and sportsman—and he was showing me this [sports trainer] app [which incorporates GPS]... You just click it on and it tells you how long you've been running for, what sort of terrain you've been running over, how many calories you've burned. Download it, get to play with it on your PC, share it with your friends. All of that stuff.
"And I think it's really nice. It's just one of those things where it is integrated with your life and it's not about running your life but it's about you being able to run your life better."
Whether the Symbian Foundation—and the open source community who will contribute to it—will do a better job of integrating Symbian's various OSes into one unified platform and managing the millions of lines of code remains to be seen.