MeeGo and Symbian: How Long Will the Bodies Stay Warm?

When Nokia and Microsoft announced a partnership last month, many systems and app developers interpreted the deal to mean Nokia was beginning to turn away QT Symbian and MeeGo platforms. In essence, Nokia would be dialing into Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 technology in the near future — and, it was presumed, dialing out of its own mobile OSes.

The announcement caused some 1,000 Nokia employees to stage a walkout to protest the deal. They feared the transition to WP7 would cost them their jobs. Developers also worried that a transition path to WP7 would not be easy for them to follow. Microsoft employees are already equipped with WP7 skills and would not mesh well with the open source mindset many Symbian and MeeGo developers hold.

Given the backlash to Nokia’s change in platform plans, the mobile phone manufacturer hosted a Developer Day on the first day of the Mobile World Congress in Spain last month. Nokia attempted to reassure developers that work will continue on QT Symbian and MeeGo. Nokia CTO Rich Green promised his company would provide tools for transitioning to WP7. His message was that ample opportunity for apps to feed the dying platforms would exist for several more years.

Symbian isn’t nearly dead, according to Green in his keynote address to developers. Nokia plans to deliver another 150 million Symbian devices for worldwide use in 190 languages for developers outside the new partnership with Microsoft, he added.

The rosy picture he painted for short-term QT Symbian and MeeGo development left a message between the lines for non-Microsoft software developers: Take it rather than leave it, he reasoned.

However, not everyone agrees with Nokia’s decision that non-WP7 developers will have an easy transition with Nokia. The end-game for QT Symbian and MeeGo is already in sight.

“I don’t see any opportunity for continued development at all. We also thought that Symbian was a dying thing and MeeGo was a non-starter. It didn’t even make sense when Nokia and Intel started talking about merging these two desperate things. I don’t really believe they can be merged well,” Dave Howell, Founder and CEO of Avatron Software, told LinuxInsider.

Not So Fast

Symbian is a long-dying platform, Howell noted, adding that he doesn’t know of any developers who are targeting that platform, including Microsoft.

“Nokia is getting paid like a billion dollars to make the switch. That is more lucrative than their current platform,” he said.

The protracted death of the QT Symbian and MeeGo mobile platforms, however, might be more a matter of seeing the glass half full rather than half empty. Green’s pronouncement that Symbian still has some life left may have merit.

“That’s an interesting plan. The numbers are interesting. Nokia is still going to push out 150 million Symbian devices through 2013. [*Correction – March 29, 2011] There are still 200 million of their devices out there. You’re talking about mammoth sales for Symbian, so they aren’t going away,” Chris McIlvoy, solutions architect for Siteworx, told LinuxInsider.

Devil in the Details

Nokia appears to be trying to play both sides against the middle, McIlvoy agreed. Nokia is keeping its support for existing platforms and venturing into a new product line with Microsoft.

If Windows Phone 7 tanks, Nokia can bail on Microsoft. It will still have the Symbian and MeeGo platforms to fall back on, he noted.

“I read that they have no binding agreement on the royalty payment with Microsoft,” said McIlvoy.

Neither Nokia nor Microsoft divulged many financial details about the partnership. But Nokia’s Sebastian Nystrom, who heads the MeeGo device program and the Qt development team and is vice president of application and service frameworks, confirmed that his company got a good deal.

“We’re pretty good at making deals. We see this one as a very good deal for us,” he told LinuxInsider.

Moving On

Develops need to take the existing situation and work with it. An ongoing opportunity exists for those developers who do not quit their efforts too soon, according to Nystrom.

“We expect to see continued interest in Symbian, QT and MeeGo app development. Of course, I can’t speak for independent developers. But we think they will continue to develop apps for these platforms as long as they are feasible,” he said.

Nokia will work with developers who want to create apps for all of the company’s platforms. The company will help them through the gradual transition into Windows Phone 7, he said.

“The transition is not going to cut off in one day. It will take some time. We will help developers make the right call at the right time. The end of the transition will be very clear. Then they will see more opportunities with the Windows 7 phone,” he insisted.

Leap of Faith

Why Nokia chose to partner with Microsoft rather than with other competitive options such as the Android phone platform is anybody’s guess. So far, Nokia is not saying much about that decision.

“It’s hard to say. The thing that Nokia has going for it is global reach. It’s not their technology. I don’t think that Windows 7 is going to give them a technological edge. But maybe they don’t want that. Maybe they wanted the cash. And maybe the tie with Microsoft comes with some future announcement that will make sense. But right now I can’t see it either,” said Howell.

Perhaps Nokia is setting up its options for a better market share. A report on the Nokia-Microsoft partnership by Forrester notes that Nokia, undeniably a giant in the cellphone world, is seeing its market share decline rapidly.

Branding Ballywick

The new union’s success faces many questions; primary among them is the ability to differentiate the products, according to Forrester. The ability to differentiate Nokia’s products was a fundamental requirement in its agreement with Microsoft, according to Nokia.

A strong element of market disruption comes in part from competitors such as Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems. Also, the market has transitioned from just phones to a broader ecosystem of devices, software, user experience, applications and content, according to Forrester. But the research firm declined to have the report’s author discuss the analysis.

Building a new mobile phone ecosystem, with or without QT Symbian and MeeGo, is the goal of the new partnership, according to Nokia’s Green. It takes a lot of intellectual horsepower and intellectual property to get this done, he told developers.

“I think the strength of the two companies will work together well to become that third ecosystem,” he said in his keynote address.

Need to Feed

This is an aggressive market, noted McIlvoy. There is not a lot of share to be had. So with this transition he thinks Nokia is in trouble.

“Symbian does have some open source mantra with it. There is a lot of resistance from us developers to move over to that Win 7 platform. With MeeGo, it will probably be an easier transition,” he suggested.

Still, he has a tough time predicting how difficult it’s going to be to migrate existing devices to Windows 7 phone. About 10 percent of the attempted conversions failed so far. If you think about 200 million existing users, even that many failures will produce a lot of frustrated users, he guessed.

“I can’t even fathom how they are going to accomplish this feat. I think it may be more about capturing existing Symbian users, you know, current Nokia customers, than it is about migrating the actual devices. That’s what I think this is more about,” said McIlvoy.

No Go MeeGo

Companies like Google don’t have any corporate culture or experience around doing API reviews to make sure that things they design now will work 30 or 20 years from now, Howell noted. That and the hardware itself may be contributing to the decline of Nokia’s aging phone platforms.

“Symbian has some of that, but their third-rate developer platform was more of an afterthought rather than an integrated part of their platform,” he said.

The aging hardware issues may be the most pressing motivation behind the remaining short-term development cycle. Both the QT Symbian and MeeGo platforms are aging.

“The hardware is the losing element when you compare it to Android. That is the biggest impediment to continuing with that market. People want the better features that come with full smartphones. With Symbian we’re talking about old phones,” said McIlvoy.

Still Counts

Regardless of age issues, Nokia will hang up on QT Symbian and MeeGo phones in a few more years. The company will continue to supply new phones using these platforms while it develops a line with Windows Phone 7 starting next year.

Symbian still leads with about 38 percent of the market. It is not going away any time soon, noted McIlvoy.

“Symbian developers don’t have to worry about being out of a job tomorrow. Developing apps for a couple-of-million userbase on Symbian is still a value proposition. They still have a pretty good horizon of development,” he said.

With that, plus knowing that another 150 million Symbian devices will be in the market as well, his company still has to look at it as a viable market, he explained.

“That will be true for now into the immediate future. I still need developers to address that core need,” concluded McIlvoy.


*ECT News Network editor’s note – March 29, 2011: In our original publication of this article, Chris McIlvoy was misquoted as saying “Nokia is still going to push out 10 million Symbian devices through 2013.” In fact, McIlvoy said, “Nokia is still going to push out 150 million Symbian devices through 2013.”

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