Symbian and the Case of Growing Noticeable

I spend a lot of time around mobile devices (some would say a bro is obsessive). I do enjoy the conveniences they’ve opened up over the years.  Leaning more towards being an interest, I spend time in mobile device areas that are just under the radar of most of what is considered popular of “innovative.” Areas such as user experience (UX), user interface design (UI), marketing/outreach, and live-use/reviewing. Some of platforms are more noticeable than others in terms of media popularity or in certain segments of the population. But only one seems to be fighting for a perception that matches it’s market share – Symbian.

Symbian, at least by the numbers, is the most used mobile platform in the world. Current numbers have it with about 38-40% of the overall market of mobile phone sold/used. When you start digging further, Symbian appears on 40-50% of devices classified as smartphones.

On the other side of all of that market presence, there is the question of revenue generation. You see, while Symbian devices are plentiful, they actually sell toward less of of a profit line than some other platforms. Part of this is because of the outright versatility of the platform – it can and does play very well with minimal hardware specs. And the other part is because it’s leading licensee, Nokia, has deliberately taken steps to put their Symbian devices in the hands of more people. One part of this is making cheaper devices, the other aspect of this was the establishment of the Symbian Foundation as the holder and integrator of the entire platform.

These and other moves have helped move Symbian forward. But, as a platform, it finds a hard time in terms of being recognized (by mainstream media and many marketing outlets). Part of the reason has to do with it’s age. Symbian is based on (what can be considered an old platform) Psion. Part of it has to so with it’s UI – the basic methodologies used for it literally frame all of our conventions about mobile phones. And part of it has to do with marketing – there is never really much of it beyond web-based, viral, and community-focused efforts.

So what can it do? I mean really. What can Symbian do to be noticeable, at least to the point of being respected and somewhat near the lips of the (supposed) techie-elite/mobile-authority-thought-leaders? Well, since I’m involved in various aspects of Symbian, here are a few cents.

Ideas Are Great, Push Them Out Faster

Everyone has ideas. Leaders have visions, managers have deadlines, and users have goals. With Symbian, there’s a gap. The Symbian Foundation seems to have laid an excellent grounding for the platform in terms of technological and management leadership. What’s left is to capture the minds and imaginations of users, and quickly turn them into products folks love.

Part of this happens already with the Symbian Ideas website (I know this because I’m a moderator there). There is a rash of great and not-so-great ideas that come through. And every so often, several types of ideas are repeated by people from different walks of life, or even different regions.

What’s harder is making those a reality. The faster that Symbian can move these ideas from generated to adopted into the platform (directly or enabling companies or developers to do so themselves), the faster that emotional attachment is reattached to the platform.

Continue Engaging Developer Needs

To that point of “making ideas happen,” Symbian (both the Foundation and those with interests in the platform), need to continue to make the platform reachable for developers. And I mean this from several aims: developer networks, time to market, developer education, and developer engagement.

Having parties/meet-ups around the world where developers can engage IAs and network, talk best practices, and note issues is great. Continue to do this, and don’t be afraid to stir the pot by exploring verticals (publicly) and putting Symbian in places where people have it in hand, but might not know the power of what they have (sales in emerging markets means that lots of opportunity for easy research and application).

Alongside Platform Evolving, Evolve the Ability to Market Relevant Points

This part of things is much harder, but this is where leadership of the platform and Symbian licensees need to just be louder about what works. We saw this recently when Nokia unveiled their new devices with the latest available version of Symbian’s operating system. They didn’t just talk feature bullet points, but they brought many of those statistics and bullet points to relevant audiences (not just number of apps in an app store, but local and global distrubution notes, etc.).

For such a platform like Symbian that can reach across several lines economically, make the point to point out why it does what it does well. Marketing Symbian to enterprises, speak on battery life, security, and scale. When speaking to parents, emphasize secure aspects, types of apps available, etc. Make every effort to speak to the audiences, with and without the licensee’s help, about what’s relevant about Symbian in light of Symbian’s strengths, not just in comparison to the other mobile flavors of the month.

Become Catchy

Finally, like anything noticeable, do something to make yourself catchy. Nokia took a random shot of one of their Symbian-powered devices on the person of a model at the World Cup (nope, not linking to that one, lol) and made a few marketing pushes about their devices “ease of use.” As a platform, Symbian needs to look at doing the same.

I will admit, people don’t (usually) purchase platforms. And honestly, not since the “Intel Inside” days have I seen people even think to care about a platform unless they were pragmatically trying to stay away from something else (ie.., preferring Mac over Windows because of mobile viruses and maintenance issues). So here might be the hardest point, but it would be the one where you’d definitely have a leg up on some other mobile device platforms. Outside of specific marketing campaigns, folks don’t know about Google Android and couldn’t tell you the difference between different licensees either (that’s slowly changing).

So, find something smart, silly, or accidental, and then tag it as your consumer-facing reasons for being relevant. Make it easy to catch – a bit more than a few models/actresses if you will – and allow that aspect of the platform to become noticed.

Easy to Say, Harder to Do

In my opinion, these items are very easy to say, and not always to do. Nevertheless, these suggestions do represent a continuance of some of the activities happening now, and also force the platform, licensees, developers, and platform supporters to not remain complacent. It isn’t enough that the Symbian Foundation pushes all of this forward, companies and developers need to ascribe to the emotional as well as the functional sides of Symbian users (like the company/developer of the Twitter client Gravity).

I am not as doomsday-predicting as the ComScore/Gartner analysts out there. Symbian will remain prominent globally for a a good bit longer.  But, it is in a place where beyond technical/functional goodies that it has to refine and build upon it’s good points, while fixing or replacing the pipes where it doesn’t do so well.

I do think that Nokia’s multi-faceted announcements of Symbian^3 devices helps here a lot. It would not be enough to just have one hero device and then let the market determine success. Symbian’s strength has always been it it’s ability to be scattershot and make impacts in each shot. This approach isn’t something that can be taken by other mobile platforms, and therefore it makes all kinds of sense for licensees to use this to their shared advantage.

This doesn’t mean that all is great. Symbian will need to move faster in both iterations and customer-handling use. The user interface will see a major update probably by the end of the first quarter of next year, which addresses another aspect. These kinds of changes, while also pushing into markets that don’t get as much attention from popular (read: louder) outlets such as financial, health, and education verticals will help that perception gap.

But, instead of trying to be like other platforms, Symbian needs to refine and push it’s unique traits. In doing this, it will not only evolve mobile for it’s current fans, but give new fans and those who prefer other mobile platforms a wrinkle of what’s possible and distinct – which always makes a different impression.