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What was Symbian?

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What was Symbian OS?

Symbian OS was the most widely-used smartphone operating system in the world until 2010, when it was overtaken by Android.

Development of Symbian OS was discontinued in May 2014.

Symbian OS began as an operating system called EPOC, which was developed in the 1980s by a company named Psion. In 1998, in a joint venture with telephone manufacturers Nokia, Ericsson, and Motorola, Psion became Symbian, Ltd., and EPOC became Symbian OS.

In 2008, Nokia acquired Symbian, and the majority of Symbian OS's source code was released under an open source license.

At the time, it was one of the largest open-source code bases ever released to the public.

As of 2014, developers are no longer able to publish new Symbian applications, but existing applications are still available for download.

Symbian’s origins are firmly routed in the PDA world.

It sprang from an OS developed by Psion for its handheld organisers — pictured below is a precursor OS to the one that evolved into Symbian.

pda.jpg

A PDF flavour was certainly evident in some of the Symbian variants that subsequently made it to market on different hardware.

pda_2.jpg

pda_3.jpg

pda_4.jpg

Symbian’s clear run extended right through to the mid noughties, as Nokia pumped out a steady stream of candybars, flips phones and other weird/wonderful form-factors from cylinders to spherical squares, all powered by its various flavours of the OS. This was Symbian cooking on gas.

The crunch time for the OS came when Apple’s iPhone arrived in 2007 to usher in the capacitive touchscreen era, putting a new more fluid touch-centric user experience at the fore and elbowing out keypads, Qwertys and fiddly menu systems that relied on wielding a stylus to navigate.

The iPhone’s arrival was of course compounded by Android’s  debut in 2008. Soon a whole army of touchscreen iPhones and iClones were crowding into a mobile playground that had formerly been Nokia’s and Symbian’s to rule. 

Unlike Symbian, these incoming platforms were starting fresh — designed for the Internet era, not the quaint pocket PDA.

Android and iOS had huge advantage over the decade-old Symbian platform. Symbian was stuck in its own folder-strewn rut, desperately needing to evolve to compete in the slick new mobile world order. Add to that, Android was free for mobile makers to use vs Symbian’s licensing fee model.

Symbian was being outgunned and out-priced. A crushing combination for any long-in-the-tooth technology.

Symbian’s great strengths as an OS were its kernel, which supported highly complex real-time system apps, and networking stack, which unlike the competition was written for mobile so was built for switching between radio technologies. 

Symbian also had platform security implemented in the kernel, making it robust in a way he argues Android is not. “It was virtually impossible to hack the system. Look at Android even today, it struggles with a load of malware, etc. 

This would not have happened to Symbian. But despite these native strengths at the OS level, failure to unify and evolve the user interface fast enough killed Symbian — by pushing mobile users into the arms of rivals who focused on usability first.

As is often the case with prominent technologies, not changing fast enough, got the better of Symbian. Whether it was down to:

  • leadership miss-management
  • Complexities of its OS
  • An outdated user interface 
  • Industry politics 
  • Or a combination of all those things is hard to say. 

Regardless of the specific combination of reasons, the cautionary outcome always remains the same: innovate or die.
 

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