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THOUGHT: Why is Symbian failing in the United States? [unwired::cast]
Posted by Alfredo Padilla - on Saturday, 19.08.06 - 01:40:10 CET under 09 - Thoughts - Viewed 20460x
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No one has benefited more from the rapid growth of the smartphone market worldwide than Symbian. The OS currently holds over 70% of global market share for smartphones. Most smartphone consumers living in the United States though would be shocked by that number. Very simply, in the stores, on a daily basis, you don't see Symbian smartphones.

Of the four major U.S. carriers, only Cingular carries any Symbian smartphones (2). In contrast there are 10 Windows Mobile smartphones offered by all 4 carriers, and more on the way soon. As an aficionado of mobile technology, and one who is often impressed by the features offered in the latest generation of Symbian smartphones, I have to ask myself why is this the case? Why is Symbian failing in the U.S.?

To understand this better, let's take a look at the history of the U.S. smartphone market. Until recently it has been dominated by 2 major players, Palm and RIM. Palm by dint of its well thought out Treo smartphones and RIM due to its implementation of push email. Windows Mobile and Symbian Devices were present in the market, but were not adopted widely.

Today the situation has changed for 3 major reasons. 1) Explosion in the adoption of smartphones have created opportunities for new players. 2) Proliferation of push email solutions have removed RIM's dominance of that market. 3) The failure to further develop the Palm OS has led Palm itself to adopt Windows Mobile in its next generation of smartphones. These three reasons combined with a new generation of well thought out and implemented Windows Mobile devices has helped Windows become a dominant player in the U.S. But what about Symbian? Why haven't they been able to take advantage of these changes to stake out a significant share of the market?

Let's look at some of the differences between Windows Mobile and Symbian devices and see if we can tease out the reason that Symbian growth in the U.S. has not matched Windows Mobile growth. The most obvious difference is the OS itself, perhaps Windows Mobile is growing because its a better platform. Never having used a Symbian device for more than 5 minutes I admit to being unequal to the task of directly comparing the OS', but based on my research I can't see that there is anything innately “better” about the Windows Mobile OS. There is the familiarity of using “windows”, but Symbian is a well thought out and implemented OS. I wouldn't see why someone would choose one over the other based simply on the OS' capabilities.

What about push email? Microsoft has been aggressive about cutting into RIM's share of the enterprise market by implementing push email via Activesync and Exchange. Extensive deployment of Exchange servers has certainly helped this along, and frankly Symbian doesn't have the ability to take advantage of a native infrastructure like Exchange offers Microsoft. However, Symbian has implemented push email functionality both via Blackberry Connect and Activesync, as well as many of the other options out there, in it's new E-series phones. This may be a small advantage to Microsoft, but pretty much anyone who needs push email can find a device on either platform that will fulfill their needs.

What about the devices themselves? It must be noted that once we begin talking about the hardware we have moved beyond a simple discussion about Windows Mobile and Symbian and entered the world of third party manufacturers. Neither Microsoft nor Symbian actually manufacture a phone, rather they depend on third parties to create the devices. The biggest manufacturer of Symbian phones is Nokia with its series 60 phones, while in the Windows Mobile world HTC dominates. Let's take a closer look at the hardware that is available for each platform and see if there is a significant difference here.

On the Windows Mobile side you have had a proliferation of devices. There are 2 different flavors of the OS, Pocket PC and “Smartphone”, and many different form factors. Want a simple candy bar? You have the HTC Tornado/Faraday. Want a flip phone? The HTC Star Trek will take care of you. Need a qwerty keyboard, well take your choice from the HTC TyTn, Treo 700w, or Motorola Q. Touchscreen? Pick any Pocket PC device. There is a lot of choice, and more every day as new phones are developed and delivered to market. Almost all of these devices are, or will be, available in the U.S.

On the Symbian side you also have a lot of choice. Candy bar? Use the Nokia N70, which many people consider the “best” smartphone out there. Want a flip? Get the new Nokia N71. Need a qwerty keyboard? The E61 or E70 are available. But what about a touchscreen? Nokia doesn't make a touchscreen device for S60, but just like Windows Mobile you have the option of different “flavors” of Symbian. Take a look at Sony's W950 or P990i running UIQ if a touchscreen is your thing.

So what is the deal? Both platforms seem to be powerful and usable, have access to “killer” features like push email, and offer a wide variety of form factors. Why don't I see people walking down the street in the U.S. with N71's and W950's? There is one simple reason, most Symbian smartphones don't function properly in the U.S. for one of two reasons:

1)They don't work on the U.S.'s CDMA networks, run by Verizon and Sprint.
2)They don't include the important 850 band for GSM networks, which is not used in Europe or Asia. They also don't include the 1900 band for 3G in the U.S.

Bingo! We have an answer. Of the Symbian models I listed previously only the Nokia E61 includes the 850 band, and even that device won't function on a CDMA network, nor is it capable of 3G functionality on U.S. networks.

So why aren't manufacturers of Symbian smartphones making phones that work in the U.S.? Well, there may be several reasons. First of all, the U.S. Market is split nearly evenly between users of the global standard GSM technology, and a U.S. specific CDMA standard. This complicates manufacturing because you have to make 2 different versions of each phone. On the Windows Mobile side you have had manufacturers who have taken on this challenge and produced phones like the HTC Apache, Treo 700w and Motorola Q. No Symbian manufacturer has considered the relatively small U.S. CDMA market (when seen from a global perspective) worth the effort.

Second, even when you consider U.S. networks that use the global GSM standard, there are differences from Europe and Asia. The 850 band is not used in Asia or Europe, but is critical for the U.S. In addition 3G GSM networks in the U.S. use the 1900 band, different from other areas of the world. So even when creating devices that function on GSM networks you are asking manufacturers to make concessions to the U.S. market in order for devices to function properly.

However challenging these technical problems may be, they are certainly not insurmountable. Feature phone manufacturers certainly make both CDMA and GSM compatible devices while world phones for GSM networks are certainly not uncommon. So why the lack of love in the smartphone world? Well, it may be the conception of the U.S. consumer. There has been a widely held belief that the U.S. consumer is not interested in or is not sophisticated enough to use smartphones. As a U.S. consumer who uses smartphones I have to take a little bit of exception to this, but I also realize that I am not the average consumer.

What I do know is that almost everyone who has asked me about my smartphone and learned about its capabilities (even those who are not tech geeks) have been impressed. In addition there has certainly been rapid adoption of smartphone technology as more and more Windows Mobile devices have become available. Frankly I think any decision based on this argument is outmoded and may cost Symbian, Nokia and others greatly in the U.S. Market.

In the final analysis it may simply be that Symbian manufacturers think the U.S. market is unimportant or they think they have the time to play "catch up" in a rapidly growing smarpthone market. If I were them however, I wouldn't give Microsoft a head start.

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