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22 December 2012

Symbian retrospective: hits and misses

Filed under: More Than Smartphones, Nokia, Psion, retrospection, Symbian, Symbian Story — David Wood @ 12:19 pm

As another calendar year draws to a close, it’s timely to reflect on recent “hits” and “misses” – what went well, and what went less well.

In my case, I’m in the midst of a much longer reflection process, surveying not just the past calendar year, but the entire history (and pre-history) of Symbian – the company that played a significant role in kick-starting the smartphone phenomenon, well before anyone had ever heard of “iPhone” or “Android”. I’m channeling my thoughts into a new book that I’m in the midst of writing, “More than smartphones”. The working subtitle is “Learning from Symbian…”

I’ve got no shortage of source material to draw on – including notes in my electronic diary that go all the way back to January 1992. As I note in my current draft of the introductory chapter,

My analysis draws on an extensive set of notes I’ve taken throughout two decades of leadership positions in and around Symbian – including many notes written in the various Psion PDA organisers that have been my constant electronic companions over these years. These Psion devices have been close to my heart, in more than one sense.

Indeed, the story of Symbian is deeply linked with that of Psion, its original parent. Psion and Symbian were both headquartered in London and shared many of the same personnel…

The PDAs that Psion brought to market in the 1980s and 1990s were the mobile game-changers of their day, generating (albeit on a smaller scale) the same kind of industry buzz as would later manifest around new smartphone releases. Psion PDAs were also the precursors for much of the functionality that subsequently re-emerged in smartphones, satellite navigation products, and other smart mobile devices.

My own Psion electronic diary possibly ranks among the longest continuously maintained personal electronic agendas in the world. The oldest entry in it is at 2.30pm on Friday 31st January, 1992. That entry reads “Swedes+Danes Frampton St”. Therein lies a tale.

At that time, Psion’s commercial departments were located in a building in Frampton Street, in central London, roughly midway between the Edgware Road and Maida Vale tube stations. Psion’s technical teams were located in premises in Harcourt Street, about 15 minutes distance by walking. In 1992, the Psion Series 3a PDA was in an early stage of development, and I was trialling its new Agenda application – an application whose UI and rich set of views were being built by a team under my direction. In parallel, discussions were proceeding with representatives from several overseas distributors and partners, about the process to create versions of Psion PDAs for different languages: German, French, Italian, Spanish… and Swedish and Danish…

As the person who assembled and integrated all the files for different software versions, I met the leads of the teams doing the various translations. That day, 31st January 1992, more than 20 years ago, was among my first meetings with work professionals from the Nordic countries.

I recall that we discussed features such as keyboards that would cater for the additional characters of the Danish and Swedish alphabets, like ‘å’ and ‘ø’. I had no inkling in 1992 that professionals from Denmark, Sweden, and Finland (including employees of mobile phone juggernauts Ericsson and Nokia) would come to have such a far-reaching influence on the evolution of the software which was at that time being designed for the Series 3a. Nor could I foresee the subsequent 20 year evolution of my electronic agenda file:

  • Through numerous pieces of Series 3a hardware
  • Via the Series 3c successor to the Series 3a, with its incrementally improved hardware and software systems
  • Via a one-time migration process to a new data format, for the 32-bit Series 5, which could cope with much larger applications, and with much larger data files (the Series 3 family used a 16-bit architecture)
  • Into the Series 5mx successor of the Series 5
  • Through numerous pieces of Series 5mx hardware – all of which give (in their “About” screen) 1999 as the year of their creation; when one piece of hardware ceases to work, because, say, of problems with the screen display or the hinge mechanism, I transfer the data onto another in my possession…

Why 1999 is the end of this particular run of changes is a fascinating tale in its own right. It’s just one of many fascinating tales that surround the changing fortunes of the players in the Symbian story…

Step forwards from chapter one to the penultimate chapter, “Symbian retrospective”. This is where I’d welcome some extra input from readers of this blog, to complement and refine my own thinking.

This is the first of two retrospective chapters that draw conclusions from the episodes explored in preceding pages. In this chapter, I look at the following questions:

  • Out of all the choices over the years made by the players at the heart of the Symbian world, which ones were the most significant?
  • Of these choices, which were the greatest hits, and which the greatest misses?
  • With the advantage of hindsight, what are the different options that could credibly have been pursued which would have had the greatest impact on Symbian success or failure?

So far, my preliminary outline for that chapter lists a total of twenty hits and misses. Some examples of the hits:

  • Create Symbian with a commercial basis (not a “customers’ cooperative”)
  • Support from multiple key long-term investors (especially Nokia)
  • Enable significant differentiation (including network operator customisation)
  • Focus on performance and stability

And some examples of the misses:

  • Failure to appreciate the importance of the mobile web browser
  • Tolerating Symbian platform fragmentation
  • Failure to provide a CDMA solution
  • Failure to merge Nokia S60 and Symbian

My question for readers of this blogpost is: What would be in your list (say, 1-3 items) of the top hits and misses of decisions made by Symbian?

Footnote: Please accept some delays in your comments appearing. WordPress may hold them in a queue awaiting my review and approval. But I’m in a part of the world with great natural beauty and solitude, where the tour guides request that we all leave our wireless communication devices behind on the ship when we land for the daily excursions. Normally I would have balked at that very idea, but there are times and places when multi-tasking has to stop!

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29 June 2008

The enhancement of the dream

Filed under: collaboration, Psion, Symbian Story — David Wood @ 12:49 pm

Did this week’s announcements about the Symbian Foundation herald “The end of the dream“, as Michael Mace suggests?

No matter how it works out in the long run, the purchase of Symbian by Nokia marks the end of a dream — the creation of a new independent OS company to be the mobile equivalent of Microsoft. Put a few beers into former Symbian employees and they’ll get a little wistful about it, but the company they talk about most often is Psion, the PDA company that spawned Symbian. …

What makes the Psion story different is that many of the Psion veterans had to leave the UK, or join non-UK companies, in order to become successful. Some are in other parts of Europe, some are in the US, and some are in London but working for foreign companies. This is a source of intense frustration to the Psion folks I’ve talked with. They feel like not only their company failed, but their country failed to take advantage of the expertise they had built.

I understand the thrust of this argument, but I take a different point of view. Rather than seeing this week’s announcement as “the end of the dream”, I see it as enabling “the enhancement of the dream”.

During the second half of 2007, Symbian’s executive team led a company-wide exercise to find a set of evocative, compelling words that captured what we called “The Symbian Story”. Some of the words we came up with were new, but the sentiment they conveyed was widely recognised as deriving from the deep historic roots of the company. Here are some extracts:

  • The world is seeing a revolution in smarter mobile devices
  • Convergence is real, happening now and coming to everyone, everywhere
  • Our mission is to be the OS chosen for the converged mobile world
  • No one else can seize it like we can
  • Our talented people, building highly complex software, have established a smartphone OS that leads the industry
  • We welcome rapid change as the way to stay ahead
  • We’ll work together to fulfill our potential to be the most widely used software on the planet, at the heart of an inspiring, exciting and rewarding success story.

This story – which we might also call a dream, or a vision – has by no means ended with this week’s announcements. On the contrary, these steps should accelerate the outcome that’s been in our minds for so long. There will be deeper collaboration and swifter innovation – making it even more likely that the Symbian platform will become in due course the most widely used on the planet.

But what about the dream that Symbian (or before it, Psion) could be “the next Microsoft”?

In terms of software influence, and setting de facto standards, this dream still holds. In terms of boosting the productivity and enjoyment of countless people around the world, through the careful deployment of smart software which we write, the dream (again) still holds. In terms of the founders of the company joining the ranks of the very richest people in the world, well, that’s a different story, but that fantasy was never anything like so high in our motivational hierarchy.

What about the demise of “British control” over the software? Does the acquisition of UK-based Symbian by Finland-based Nokia indicate yet another “oh what might have been” for the United Kingdom plc?

Once again, I prefer to take a different viewpoint. In truth, the software team has long ago ceased to be dominated by home-bred British talent. The present Symbian Leadership Team has one person from Holland and one from Norway. 50% of the Research department that I myself head were born overseas (in Russia, Greece, and Canada). And during the Q&A with Symbian’s Nigel Clifford and Nokia’s Kai Oistamo that took place in London at all-hands meetings of Symbian employees on the 24th of June, questions were raised using almost every accent under the sun. So rather than Symbian being a British-run company, it’s better to see us as a global company that happens to be headquartered in London, and which benefits mightily from talent born all over the world.

Not only do we benefit from employees born worldwide, we also benefit (arguably even more highly) from our interactions with customers and partners the world over. As Symbian morphs over the next 6-9 months into a new constellation of organisations (including part that works inside Nokia, and part that has an independent existence as the Symbian Foundation), these collaborative trends should intensify. That’s surely a matter for celebration, not for remorse.

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