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Summary:

Is Nokia’s Symbian operating system relegated to a historical footnote by 2015? Research firm Gartner thinks so, but Nokia’s transition to Windows Phone 7 could take a few years and Google’s Android platform isn’t yet entrenched in the low-end segment just yet: Symbian may survive longer.

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Google’s Android platform will grab nearly half of the global smartphone market by the end of 2012, attracting a 49.2 percent market share of the 630 million smartphones sold next year. So says research firm Gartner, which expects phones running Apple’s iOS and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 to rise past devices that use Nokia’s Symbian and Research In Motion’s BlackBerry operating systems. While these assertions won’t surprise many, one data point does jump out: Gartner predicts that sales of Symbian smartphones will all but disappear by 2015, dropping 100-fold from the 2010 figures.

This assertion is in stark contrast to our own GigaOM Pro mobile handset platform forecast (subscription required), published just yesterday. David Chamberlain, Principal Analyst at Alloy Market Research, still sees Nokia’s Symbian platform having a place in the global cell phone ecosystem for a bit longer, even though Nokia intends to transition some of its smartphone portfolio to Microsoft’s mobile platform. Chamberlain suggests that Symbian’s one-time market share of 70 percent, which in 2010 fell to 37.6 percent, will only fall to 23.9 percent by 2015. That’s higher than the iOS share estimates in 2015 from both Chamberlain (22 percent) and Gartner (17.2 percent).

How is this scenario even possible, given that Gartner forecasts Symbian sales to account for only 661,000 of the 1.1 billion smartphones sold in 2015, or just 0.1 percent of the market? Chamberlain’s estimates are based largely on low-end market opportunities in still-emerging areas and the lengthy transition to Windows Phone 7 for Nokia:

Nokia’s announcement that it would adopt Windows Phone 7 as its mobile platform of choice may create a seismic shift in the platform market. The forecasts in this research are based on Nokia’s continuing support and marketing of the popular Symbian platform rather than attempting to gauge the effect of Nokia shifting its support to the more expensive, complex and power-hungry Microsoft platform.

Clearly a shift from Symbian to Windows Phone 7 will impact the platform mix of handsets sold by Nokia. Gartner places emphasis on this by suggesting that Nokia will push Microsoft’s platform into mid-tier handsets before 2013. That would explain a complete demise of Symbian within four years, but Nokia hasn’t yet signed an agreement with Microsoft yet, and although highly unlikely, there’s risk it never does. That unlikely scenario aside, it will still take a few years for Nokia to make such a platform transition: the company recently stated it will be 2013 before the majority of its handset line runs on Windows Phone 7.

The low-end market could keep Symbian alive longer than some think, although I’ve pointed out that low-cost Android devices are poised to eat into that share as well. Component prices continue to decline and an average performing Android handset could easily cost $100 or less without contract within the next year or two. But Nokia could salvage its investment in Symbian, which already runs on relatively lesser hardware than current high-end handsets, and find new hope in Asia, Latin America, Africa and other emerging regions where the Nokia brand is strong. Symbian handsets in such areas wouldn’t be subject to any licensing fees that Nokia would have to pay Microsoft for Windows Phone 7 use, helping to reduce the costs of the phones.

For that reason, in tandem with a long transition to Windows Phone 7, the timing of Symbian’s death is still debatable. Nokia has made it clear that Symbian research and development will diminish over time to zero effort. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending your viewpoint, Nokia’s speed of strategy execution can be a lengthy process and that could keep Symbian around a few years longer than some think.

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  1. I come from a relatively poor country, and majority of people here don’t even know what Symbian is, let alone Android. They will still buy a Nokia, just because it’s Nokia. I don’t see it going out so easily in the Eastern Europe, and I believe it will be similar in the majority of the relatively undeveloped world.

    That said, China and India, two huge markets, are building their own Android based, cheap products that can take majority on their soil.

    1. Interesting observation and thanks for sharing! I agree: in some regions, Nokia’s brand still carries much weight and that’s going to take time before it changes. Agree on the low-cost Android devices in China and India; something we’ve written about before: http://gigaom.com/2010/10/12/android-to-add-next-500m-mobile-web-users-in-india/

  2. It will be interesting what Nokia says about Symbian in it’s April 12th announcement. The 4 year forecasts are really not as reliable as the short term ones because no one can predict the how differently the mobile landscape can change in 4 years. Wasn’t MySpace bigger than Facebook 4 years ago? (Funny that MySpace was part of the now defunct Symbian Foundation) 4 years ago there was no iPhone, no Android phones. I think Symbian will be around a lot longer than Nokia may want it to be.

  3. Lucian Armasu Thursday, April 7, 2011

    I think Gartner is setting themselves up for yet another embarrassing miss, just like the one from 2010. I think Android will grow much faster than that. It should go to 45-50% by the end of *this* year. That’s without even counting the low-end market that they’ll start capturing next year (under $100 phones). The most cellphone volume comes from low-end phones. When Android gets to the point where it works on $50-$100 unlocked phones, it’s grow will accelerate and easily go over 60%. There’s only Symbian to stand in its way at that level, and we’ve already seen what Android has done to Symbian at the high-end and mid-end levels.

    Now, I also think the Gigaom Pro prediction is very flawed. I mean, did you look at it? It shows Android won’t pass Symbian until 2013, and that Symbian’s market share in 2010 was double that of Android. How can that be? Android has already surpassed Symbian in shipments.

    1. “It shows Android won’t pass Symbian until 2013, and that Symbian’s market share in 2010 was double that of Android. How can that be? Android has already surpassed Symbian in shipments.”

      2010 figures are already reported sales, not an unknown or a forecast, and I haven’t seen a report showing that for the entire year of 2010, Android sold more than Symbian. I did see a report of that (from Canalys, IIRC) that Android just barely beat out Symbian for the last *quarter* of 2010, which is very different and doesn’t contradict any data from anyone in this post. Going forward is a different story. ;)

      If I’m incorrect though, just pop in a link so I can take a look – thx!

  4. Nokia peaked with N95. It is still the best Symbrian phone of all time. When N started anounncing the 15th version of N95 and the virtually unchanged N86, people realized Nokia was just sitting on it s ars doing nothing.

  5. Maybe your research missed the news that Microsoft and Nokia have put pen to paper already?

    1. Hmm…. a Nokia person last week confirmed here in on the blog that the agreement is not yet signed and I haven’t yet seen any news to indicate the contrary. Do you have a source link reporting that the agreement has indeed been signed?

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