Nokia wants developers to create apps for the aging Symbian mobile phone OS, but will Symbian execs do what it takes to really get developers excited -- a sweaty dance on stage?
Symbian's CEO Nigel Clifford sailed through the entire opening of the smart phone operating system's annual developer conference without once mentioning the iPhone, but the spectre of Apple's device loomed large.
It's clear that the success of the iPhone, which sold 4 million units in its first year, is a key factor in the future plans for Symbian, and its willingness to give up as much as $300 million in licensing revenue. (Companies utilising Symbian include major backer Nokia, Motorola, Samsung and Sony Ericsson.)
As Clifford was at pains to emphasise in his speech at the Symbian Smartphone Show in London, Symbian doesn't need to worry about market share. "In [the Northern] spring this year, we passed 200 million Symbian smart phones being shipped since Symbian started," Clifford said in his keynote. By the end of the year, that number will likely top a quarter of a billion, he predicted.
However, Apple's ability to generate hype for the iPhone and the associated iTunes App Store despite its much smaller audience presents a major potential threat to Symbian's ability to attract developers, and many of Clifford's comments seemed designed to highlight the differences in its approach.
In late June, Symbian announced a major strategic shift, making the code for the Symbian operating system open source and available freely for any device, and combining its three separate user interfaces into a single approach which can be customised by individual manufacturers. The shift, via the creation of the Symbian Foundation, is due to take place by early 2009.
That could prove to be a costly activity in terms of royalty. "Effectively, we're going to be putting $300 million back in the ecosystem," Clifford said, acknowledging that Symbian's .previous approach hadn't been entirely successful. "Maybe developers have been a little put off by licensing terms and licensing conditions."
Symbian hopes that the lowered cost of licensing the platform will increase the rate of software development, though Clifford acknowledged that might not happen with every developer or phone manufacturer: "Some in these straitened times are going to bank it."
Since launch, the 3G iPhone has gone through three major OS refreshes and some well-documented network and email performance problems, a situation exacerbated both by Apple's well-known culture of secrecy (which limited pre-launch testing) and its desire to use an operating system based on the core of Mac OS X.
Unsurprisingly, Clifford was keen to emphasise the contrasting mobile-centric approach of Symbian's core development. "This is code which has been directed painstakingly from the ground up for mobile use. It has not been bought in from another domain."
Code quality and compatibility with older versions was also a recurring theme. "Quality is the most important objective we have."
"We can't afford to mess with the ecosystem. We've been extremely firm about maintaining that compatibility commitment."
Clifford also talked up the importance of rapidly releasing new versions and ensuring solid device performance. "I firmly believe that speed is actually the only sustainable competitive advantage which we have in our industries."
While the transformation of Symbian into the open source Symbian Foundation hasn't yet been finalised, Clifford said that wasn't stalling development. "We're not letting up in terms of the amount of innovation which is coming to market."
Apple might have proved the Voldemort of the Symbian world, but executive vice president for research David Wood did invoke another smart phone rival, Microsoft, in a comment mocking an infamous YouTube moment for MS CEO Steve Ballmer.
"The three most important words for the success of the Symbian platform are developers, developers, developers," he said. But Wood was quick to add: "Don't worry, I'm not going to break into a dance at this stage."