Mobile platforms: Symbian, that 'European operating system'

A team of experts weigh the good and bad of each mobile platform to help you choose the one that's right for your company.

Mobile managers face a tough choice when weighing which mobile platform or operating system to deploy to mobilize the workforce. There's BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Palm OS, Symbian, Linux and J2ME. How do they choose? Which platforms perform which functions well, and where do they fall short?

We at want to make that choice a little easier. We've assembled a team of experts and asked them to weigh the good and bad of each mobile platform. On the fourth Wednesday of each month, we'll present the pluses and minuses of a different platform. With this series of stories, we hope to help you choose the platform that's right for your company and help you cast aside those that may not fit your needs.

Part 4: Symbian. As an operating system, Symbian is huge in Europe, but it has yet to really catch on in the U.S. Some experts attribute that to the limited number of Symbian devices available here.

Series at a glance

Windows Mobile

Palm OS



Long known as "that European operating system," Symbian has yet to plant its feet firmly here in the U.S.

It is available here on only a limited number of devices from Nokia. But its lack of stateside loyalty should in no way be read as an indication that Symbian offers a sub-par operating system. According to mobility experts, it is quite the contrary: Symbian is rich with functionality and easier to use than Microsoft's Windows Mobile.

"Like Palm, Symbian is a device OS but not a mobility platform," said Daniel Taylor, managing director of the Mobile Enterprise Alliance. "For many U.S. companies, Symbian has been 'that European operating system,' but more and more Symbian devices are reaching the market here."

Despite Symbian's lackluster sales in the U.S., it holds a strong global position as an operating system, according to research from Gartner Inc.

In the first quarter of 2006, Symbian dominated the smartphone operating system market, taking nearly 65% of the market and shipping 11.5 million units, beating out Linux, Microsoft, BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM), and Palm. In the PDA market, however, Symbian held a measly 3.8% market share, falling to Microsoft, RIM and Palm. Overall, in the combined smartphone and PDA markets, Symbian took the No. 1 spot with 54.4%, beating out both Linux and Microsoft.

"Even though Symbian dominates the market today, that position is tenuous," Gartner's Todd Kort said.

Avi Greengart, principal analyst at Current Analysis, said that Symbian's high market share can be deceiving.

"While Symbian has the largest global smartphone market share, that is not reflected at all in the U.S. market," Greengart said. "There are only two Symbian phones sold through a U.S. carrier today: Nokia's 6682 and 9300, both at Cingular."

The Good

One way in which Symbian excels, according to Taylor, is that it works with several different mobile email providers.

There are only two Symbian phones sold through a U.S. carrier today: Nokia's 6682 and 9300, both at Cingular.
Avi Greengart
Principal AnalystCurrent Analysis
"Symbian is widely supported by mobile email software, so many of the name-brand and white-label mobile email systems already support Symbian," Taylor said. "Some Symbian device vendors have licensed BlackBerry Connect to support BlackBerry mobile email. For Microsoft's mobile email solutions, Symbian directly licenses Exchange ActiveSync, and some Symbian devices also support Outlook Mobile Access."

"Given these capabilities," he continued, "Symbian is rapidly becoming the 'other mobile OS' for companies that wish to deploy mobile email on the Microsoft platform but would like a broader range of device selection."

According to Jack Gold, principal and founder of Northborough, Mass.-based advisory firm J. Gold Associates, Symbian offers a highly rich feature set at a level that's easier to use than Microsoft but a bit more complicated than the Palm OS. On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being easy to use and 10 difficult, Symbian falls between four and six, Gold said.

Symbian works well with third-party applications, Gold said, but a true Windows shop would have some difficulty and is better off with a Windows Mobile deployment.

"If you want to deploy native Windows applications," he said, "it's not the way to go."

The Bad

Although Symbian is feature rich, Todd Kort said, it doesn't integrate well with corporate back-end systems such as VPN connections and other enterprise-oriented tools.

"One weakness is [that] it has very few hooks into back-end systems," he said, adding that Symbian also lacks a large library of enterprise-class applications.

Also, Symbian's richness of features can add to the price tag, in many cases causing mobile managers to shy away from the expense.

"These devices work well for many traveling professionals, managers, knowledge workers and sales teams, but enterprise IT departments may find Symbian OS devices to be too expensive and too feature rich for verticalized field-force applications," Taylor said. "In this category, IT departments like to reduce the available features and functionality, stripping things down to the essential task at hand, and that's why platforms like Windows CE remain strong for field-force solutions."

Symbian also falls short because it does not support CDMA; it is strictly GSM. According to Greengart, that limits Symbian's potential as a U.S. operating system.

"Verizon Wireless and Sprint are both CDMA carriers, together accounting for over half of all U.S. mobile phone subscribers," Greengart said. "There are no CDMA phones running Symbian anywhere in the world."

He added that the Symbian user interface layer must be bought separately from the device vendor and is not included in the purchase, which is sometimes a hindrance.

"I sometimes wonder how Symbian can call itself an operating system, since the user interface layer must be purchased separately by the device vendor," Greengart said. "Two competing UI layers are the most popular: S60 from Nokia and UIQ. Then there's NTT DoCoMo, which is using Adobe Flash on top of Symbian for some of its phones."

Symbian phones can also prove deceiving, Greengart continued, because the smartphones are often purchased without users' even realizing that they have bought a smartphone.

"This leads to an interesting situation where there is a significant installed base of devices, but aftermarket sales are relatively light," he said.

It is also difficult for an enterprise to manage Symbian because many companies do not want to use just one or two different devices throughout. Instead, they want to manage an operating system that can work on more devices.

"From an IT management perspective, most big companies will likely not be able to standardize one device across the company," Greengart said. "If I've got to manage all of these devices, I'm going to look at third-party middleware that works with a broad array of devices, not just a few."

Companies don't generally go out and say 'Ah, I'm going to deploy a Symbian phone.'
Jack Gold
Principal & FounderJ.Gold Associates
The Indifferent

Security, though not on a par with the likes of Windows Mobile and BlackBerry, is OK, according to Kort.

"Natively, out of the box, it is not as strong as Microsoft's or RIM's," he said, but a host of third-party security software can be added on.

Symbian, while thought to be fairly easy to use, can sometimes be rather complicated, experts said. It is, however, considered the most phone-centric OS.

"It takes some time to figure out just where to find everything -- settings can be buried in the strangest of places," Greengart said. "But there are Symbian devices which can dynamically switch between WiFi/3G/2.5G networks based on rules you set up. So, for example, you can choose to connect over the fastest network or least expensive option, depending on which operators have coverage in your area and which carry additional roaming charges."

Nokia, the world's largest phone manufacturer, is the biggest shareholder in Symbian and the operating system's largest licensee; it also wholly owns the S60 UI layer for Symbian, Greengart noted. He said that it gets sticky, however, because Nokia owns less than 50% of total Symbian shares.

"Nokia will happily license S60 to all comers," he said. "The notion of an OS jointly owned by many vendors has been likened to the use of a single GSM standard that benefited all vendors in the European market. I would point out that Nokia benefited from the standard more than most, and some of Nokia's competitors -- notably Motorola -- are focused on mobile Linux in large part to avoid contributing to an ecosystem that directly and indirectly benefits Nokia."

@24668 The Conclusion

Despite having a very small presence in the U.S., Symbian could soon make waves here, some experts say. It has a strong feature set and is relatively easy to use. Its main stumbling blocks are the limited number of Symbian devices and its lack of support for CDMA. Still, Taylor said that he holds out hope that Symbian will start making its way to mobile workforces, even if it can't conquer the enterprise market.

"I'd love to see some Symbian devices making their way into field-force applications, but the enterprise market has never been a priority for Symbian management, and I don't see that changing anytime soon," Taylor said.

Gold, on the other hand, said he considered Symbian an afterthought for most U.S. users. Typically, companies in the U.S. don't set out to deploy the operating system; the operating system comes to them first.

"The truth is, most companies deploying Symbian smartphones are not deploying because it's Symbian but because it's a cool phone from Nokia," Gold said. "Companies don't generally go out and say 'Ah, I'm going to deploy a Symbian phone.'"

Overall, Symbian will start to get some positive attention because of its solid market share, Kort said, and it could make a bigger splash in the U.S. as the smartphone market matures.

"They're doing a lot of things right," he said. "I feel good about their chances."

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