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Out With the Old, in With the New

The holiday season is upon us and as is my custom, I usually try to take a moment and recap the year that was, and what a year at that. When we rang in 2010, the smartphone landscape featured two predominately open operating systems — Android and Symbian, along with OS X for the iPhone and Windows Mobile. These four platforms arguably served as the target for the vast majority of apps developers at the beginning of the year.

Then in February, Nokia and Intel announced that they would merge their Maemo and Moblin platforms into a single platform known as Meego. In April, RIM announced that they were acquiring the OS maker QNX, who have a long history in a number of embedded and automotive markets.

Meanwhile, Symbian has been increasingly relegated to an exclusively Nokia-based solution, with the Foundation basically ceasing operations by next March. I will always have a soft spot for Symbian, having spent so much of my career working with it; indeed, I feel that the operating system itself has always been strong, from a technical perspective, for building a smartphone. Symbian’s undoing in my opinion was the user interface. This is well documented in blogs and analyst reports. What few of them mention is that the Japanese have been using their own UI on top of Symbian for years and have been highly successful in their domestic market.

The biggest strength Symbian has is its ability to combine the awareness of a device with constrained resources and the power of a real-time kernel to deliver the most power and memory efficient operating environment in the market. Who knows, maybe it will experience a resurgence in its new form, but things are not looking good at the moment. And we are all well aware that the best technology often fails to capture the market for various reasons. I wish all those in the Symbian community the best in the interesting months ahead.

What can we take from all of this activity? First of all, it seems clear that many of the big smartphone manufacturers want to maintain control of their platforms, replicating the iPhone model as closely as possible. Secondly, it seems that the market wants and expects some form of platform competition, shying away from a single platform dominating this space in the same way as the PC market today. Thirdly, open OSes will continue to face stiff competition in the year ahead, as evidenced by the glowing reviews received by Windows Phone 7, the continued appeal of OS X and the arrival of QNX on the scene.

At this point, it’s hard to categorize Symbian, which for all intents and purposes looks to have become a Nokia internal platform, though ostensibly still open. I can already see the makings of an interesting blog around this time next year based on all the interesting changes that have and have yet to take place in our rapidly evolving industry. I’m certain that 2011 will have plenty of surprises of its own.

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