Symbian's stumble casts doubts on smartphones

Symbian's stumble casts doubts on smartphones

Symbian's shipments went down in the first quarter of this year, raising doubts that its smartphone operating system will spread to cheaper devices as fast as the company hopes - and also contradicting the chairman's hope that the iPhone would actually benefit Symbian.

"With our customers shipping a total of 18.5 million Symbian mobile phones through over 250 major network operators globally in the quarter, we have now surpassed the 200 million cumulative shipment mark," said Symbian CEO, Nigel Clifford - but his results release doesn't mention the fact that the OS shipped on 22.4 million handsets in the previous quarter.

So, while the operating system's shipment rate has grown 16.5 percent during the year, it actually shrunk 17 percent in the last quarter. "Sales are down not just seasonally since Xmas, but are even below the level of mid-2007," said Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis. "Against continued shipment growth of the overall market to above 1.1 billion phones a year, that's not looking too promising for some observers' expectations of 30 percent penetration of smartphones in a few years' time."

At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February, Clifford said that Symbian would benefit from the iPhone's arrival but it seems that smartphones aren't attractive in themselves: "People buy smartphones in Europe because they're Nokias or high-end SonyEricssons and have nice design / camera / music functions - but neither know nor care that they're 'smart'," said Bubley.

Bubley expects smartphones to only reach around 15 percent of the phone market - although there will be some difficulty in deciding what is a smartphone, as some phones with extendible operating systems will be shipped in a locked down mode.

"Nokia doesn't seem to be pushing the open OS harder down into the mid-tier," says Bubley. "Put simply, customers would rather have that extra $4 of software spent instead on a better camera, or more memory."

Symbian accepted that growth was slower, but put it down to seasonal factors: "Our customers haven't launched as many new phones in the quarter, and the market is seasonal," said Symbian spokesman Antonia Graham. "Global economic conditions have also had a bit of an effect."

However, she predicted faster growth in the current quarter: "In the last quarter eight customers have launched 13 new models. We are confident about the future."

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