When Exactly Is the Timing of Symbian’s Demise?

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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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