Nokia's Symbian goes open-source: market share dropping, still dominates the market.

Symbian-Open-SourceNokia, the world’s largest cell phone maker, launched Symbian OS 10 years ago. It established the market for smart phones and helped propel Nokia to its market dominance. More than 330 million cell phones running Symbian OS have been produced by a number of makers, including Nokia, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Motorola, LG, Sharp, Fujitsu, and Huawei. The Symbian OS ended 2009 with a 48% global market share for smart phones, says ABI Research. That’s down from 63% in 2007, the year that saw the iPhone launch.

“Symbian has a huge installed base, but a prevailing issue is that the user interface is not good,” said William Stofega, an analyst at research firm IDC. “If Nokia is going to stick with Symbian, as they have said, (the operating system) has to be revitalized.”

“The question is: can Symbian garner enough interest in the marketplace outside of Nokia?” said Jack Gold, principal of research firm J.Gold Associates. “Look at who’s endorsed Android: Motorola, Samsung, LG, HTC; it’s a long list. How many vendors are concentrating on Symbian?”

In an effort to completely open Symbian in order to better compete against Apple, RIM and Google, in June 2008 Nokia paid $410 million to Sony Ericsson, Panasonic and Samsung to buy all of the Symbian platform. Before that, Nokia owned 48%.

On Feb. 4, the Symbian Foundation released the first completely open-sourced version of its mobile phone operating system, a move it hopes will make it easier for developers to improve the software and create applications for use on Symbian-based phones. Developers will be able to download, modify and use the software at no charge.

The foundation also hopes to get more handset firms making Symbian phones.

“This is a significant milestone,” said Lee Williams, executive director of the London-based Symbian Foundation. “It makes us a stronger competitor.”

By 2012, Google’s Android will surpass Windows Phone and the iPhone to become the world’s No. 2 most popular mobile operating system behind Symbian, according to Gartner. As rival software gained market share, support for Symbian began to flag. Symbian hopes the new, open-sourced software will help reverse the slide. “We’ll see proliferation of converged devices based on Symbian happen this year,” says Larry Berkin, general manager for Symbian in the U.S.

Personally, I see Symbian as the OS for “cheap” smartphones. There are very many phones running Symbian well below the price tag of Android phones. People will go on buying Symbian powered phones because they are cheap, widespread (they likely already know how to interact with the device), and they provide the closer experience to a modern smartphone that they can afford. People will also tell you that Nokia phones are more feature packed then an iPhone: better camera, FM radio, powerful stereo speakers…

The system has undergo a great facelift. They are working toward a centralized app store, together with a workflow that will make purchasing apps easier. But only a change in Symbian’s average user behavior in regards to apps and a peak of apps sales has the hope to ignite a “Rinascimento” effect for this platform. Considering Nokia’s recent partnership with Intel, it looks like the No. 1 maker is not betting on Symbian their future.

So the point is, who is interested into building apps for a platform that is at the end of its life cycle?