Symbian Rides Again: New Handsets and Better Software

If you didn’t know any better, you might think Nokia’s (s nok) mobile Symbian platform is still chugging along down the tracks. The company made several Symbian-related announcements Tuesday, including the launch of two new handsets, an update to the Symbian operating system and an eight-fold increase in software downloads from the Ovi Store, which now hits 5 million downloads per day. Of course, Nokia previously announced its intent to use Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 (S MSFT) platform going forward, so today’s developments are rendered moot. Or are they?

There’s no doubt that both the new smartphones, dubbed the E6 and X7, and the Symbian software update were already in the works for months prior to Nokia’s choice to partner with Microsoft back in February. Plenty of evidence around the web prior to today indicated as much. And it would make no sense for Nokia to immediately cease all Symbian efforts for a few reasons. First, the Microsoft agreement hasn’t been signed yet, although Nokia has admitted to deploying engineering resources on the platform in order to launch a Windows Phone 7 handset by the end of this year. And although Android surpassed Symbian sales in the fourth quarter of 2010, Nokia’s smartphone platform has outsold all others on an annual sales basis for several years.

That leads into the recent smartphone platform forecasts I questioned just last week. Gartner (s it) figures Symbian sales will all but dry up by 2015 and bases that opinion heavily on the Microsoft / Nokia partnership. But Windows Phone 7 doesn’t make sense in the low-end market due to Microsoft licensing fees. And as I noted, Nokia could still leverage Symbian by pushing the platform down to where it currently uses the Series 40 platform in an effort to combat cheap Android (s goog) handsets:

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.

The updates to Symbian look nice and appear to address two key concerns I had with the Symbian platform when I reviewed the Nokia N8 last year. The web browser is improved, which I said was important due to the rise smartphone users hitting the web on the go. And the abysmal text entry system for the platform now looks much better both by not taking up the entire screen and because it can be used in portrait mode. Yes, these are little things in the grand scheme, but they’re also central to the smartphone experience because they’re functions users hit many times each and every day.

Nokia has always designed excellent hardware, so I’m not surprised the two new handsets are appealing. The E6 is geared towards the business crowd and combines a hardware keyboard with a touchscreen. The design of Nokia’s new X7 reminds me of a race car or futuristic phone that few other handset makers could pull off. Combined with the Symbian updates, both should offer a better user experience, which has really always been Nokia’s Achilles’ heel: The hardware is great, and the operating system is capable, but the usability has been lacking.

The sad part is, now that Nokia is pinning its future on Microsoft’s platform, Symbian is finally starting to look more competitive, and the updates will apply to current Symbian handsets. Tie that in to a growing software ecosystem with 5 million daily downloads and 25 times more carrier billing agreements than competing smartphone platforms and you start to wonder: If this progression were to continue, would Nokia really need Microsoft to bail it out?