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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 17863x
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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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Posted by the Mobile Phone Fan on 19.08.06 - 02:09:14

because good Americans buy American operating systems like Palm OS and Windows Mobile. Symbian is not even British now - it is Finnish-Swedish. The bottom line is: Symbian is a big failure in USA - remote 3rd after Windows Mobile and Palm OS, and new Treo smartphones will ensure that it will not change.

Posted by THE SUPPORTER on 19.08.06 - 13:18:16

LOL! big_smile Jacek, you are too funny! big_smile

Posted by jbelkin on 19.08.06 - 19:17:55

The palm is acceptable as a mobile OS - it's not perfect and it's no ipod oS but it's mostly functional and runs without much battery power.

Mobile PC/Q/MS is well, very MIcrosoftian ... after 9 years, you get better WORD & PPT functionality with a palm add-on than you do with an MS phone. Frankly, it's crap ... after NINE freakin' years! (Q phone - takes three menu levels to turn on the SPEAKERPHONE ... first menu to find it - the "obvioius" PROFILE menu ...)

Symbian is no better or worse than the MS OS.

The reason it has no traction - middling OS - if you intend, it has to be better than the other middling OS, the one from MS ...

The winner by default is the 9 year old OS updated slightly - Palm.

Posted by Alfredo Padilla on 20.08.06 - 03:25:17

I'm not going to argue about which OS is better because I think that's very subjective and frankly this article isn't about which OS is better. I will say that I don't think Palm will be developed further and as such it will become obsolete fairly soon.

Posted by Mark Jenkins on 20.08.06 - 22:18:08

Alfredo, et. al.,

These are all good points, IF Symbian was even available to U.S. consumers.  The question that needs to be answered though is why U. S. carriers don't even make Symbian an option for their customers.  It may have been a technical issue 4 or 5 years ago.  It could have been an end-user demand issue as well.  The Mobile Phone Fan takes a good swing, but still misses the ball.  While Americanism plays a huge factor, it isn't the consumer buying that is to blame (remember, U. S. consumers really don't have the choice to buy Symbian phones).  I believe that today the issue lies with the developer communities and Symbian's marketing to that audience. 

Most Symbian developers are talented and innovative, yet small, Europian shops.  Why would Janne take a chance writing code for a particularly U. S. application when he knows that the U. S. buys fewer Symbian phones than he sells copies of his applications in Usjoli, Finland alone?  Also, does Janne's shop even have the cultural knowledge to write a particularly appealing application for the America's?

On the other hand (or side of the pond), why would Jack write a program for Symbian?  Heck, Jack gave more free copies of his latest application to his Mom yesterday than T-Mobile USA purchased Symbian handsets in the last 3 years.  He is already overburdened writing code for Palm OS 5, Windows Mobile 5 Smartphone, Windows Mobile 5 Pocket PC, BlackBerry, Java, and maybe even Sidekick. 

There is little incentive for Janne or Jack to write for the U. S. Symbian market.  While Symbian has tried to woo the big developers in the U. S. with free developer kits and all of the other things every OS delivers to its developer community, it needs to do 2 things that seem counter-intuitive.

1) It needs to stop advertising that a phone has Symbian in it when marketing it to a U. S. carrier.  The Symbian label moves the phone from being a cool, hip, functional phone to a "smartphone" in the carriers eye's.  Now the carrier doesn't compare it to Samsung or LG when it makes a buying decision, it compares it to BlackBerry and Microsoft.  Regardless of which OS is better, BlackBerry and Microsoft will kick Symbians butt in the mindshare battle every day in the U. S..  Symbian needs to make a stealthy penetration of the U. S. phone market to establish a beach head.

2) Symbian needs to use the same stealth to develop it's own U. S. developer network.  Don't put up huge booths at trade shows, put up a small 10 foot by 10 foot booth at an X-Games event.  Don't put out huge application directories that include gynocological devices (sorry, but true), buy some small college programming clubs free pizza for a semester.  Don't fly Nokia and Sony Ericsson executives to U. S. events, fly Janne and his fellow developers to Dallas for a Cowboys game, or Cheyenne for a rodeo, or Minneapolis for a walk around the Mall of America.  Let Janne see how U. S. consumers use their phones, and what they are lacking. 

Get the OS into the carrier's hands so that U. S. consumers have a choice.  Then give those consumers some compelling applications.  Symbian should stop telling the U. S. how big it is, and should instead let the consumers tell the carriers how cool it is.


Posted by Gary on 27.08.06 - 17:09:44

A good analysis but you could have saved yourself the time and effort by simply asking Nokia. Over the past three years I have regularly inquired of Nokia's management why their offerrings in the US are relatively slim compared with those provided to the EU. Why are the features of the models they provide to the US so inferior and outdated compared to those of the non-USA models? Every year, regardless of any management changes at Nokia, their response has been the same: "Nokia does not consider the US to be one of their target markets."

In pop culture there is a current phrase that appropriately represents Nokia & Symbian's position towards the US markets: "they're just not that into the US".

Americans recognize this, and have turned to the competition which shows more interest in the US markets.

Technological advantages aside there is no wisdom in pursuing a person or a company who is just not into you, thus the US favors manufacturers like HTC,LG, Motorola, Palm & Microsoft who recognize that the US markets are pivotal to their future and demonstrate this by accepting the risk of supporting OS' and applications which also depend upon the US markets.

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