Shipments of new Symbian smartphones from Nokia are rapidly dying, less than three years after the last time it topped the list of the world's most-used mobile platforms.
The rapid and stark decline of Symbian serves as a warning about what can happen to top smartphone operating systems, even iOS and Android, in a volatile market, analysts said.
In another decade, pray tell, where will the iPhone stand?
Despite Symbian's recent place among the ranks of the tech greats, there won't be many tears shed for its demise, or many fond remembrances. There won't be a short epitaph on a tombstone somewhere in Espoo, Finland, Nokia's hometown.
The company is now focused on making Windows Phone-based smartphones like the Lumia line as well as the low-cost Asha phones that run a variant of Symbian.
"For many people, Nokia phones on Symbian were [once] the epitome of a smartphone," said Yankee Group analyst Boris Metodiev in a blog post this week. "That time is long gone. No one is going to miss Symbian. Most people will not even notice its disappearance. "
A Nokia spokesman on Friday refused to say when the company expects to stop shipping Symbian devices. The Financial Times on June 11 reported that Nokia's Symbian shipments will end this summer.
The Nokia spokesman, Mark Durrant, said via email that Nokia decided to switch to Microsoft's Windows Phone OS as its primary smartphone platform in February 2011 partly because Symbian had become complicated and time-consuming for developers.
"It took around 22 months to get a Symbian phone out of the door," Durrant said via email. "With Windows Phone, it is less than a year. We spend less time having to tinker with deep-lying code and more time on crafting elements of the experience that make a big difference, such as around photography, maps, music and apps in general."
Durrant did honor Symbian a bit, noting that the last Symbian phone, the Nokia 808 PureView that was introduced in Russia in May 2012, has a remarkably high-quality 41-megapixel camera.
The 808 PureView "extended the [Symbian] platform's pioneering tradition, and acted as a bridge for the next wave of innovation now seen in our latest models, such as the Lumia 925," Durrant said.
Durrant added that "many Symbian devices remain in use around the world and continue to offer opportunities for developers and others in the ecosystem."
Recent demise of Symbian
Nokia outsourced Symbian software development and support to Accenture in September 2011, when it said that the development and support for the OS would continue "at least until 2016." About 2,300 Nokia employees were transferred to Accenture at the time.
Accenture couldn't be reached to comment this week on when it expects Symbian shipments will finally end.
In April, IDC predicted predicted that "Symbian will meet its end in 2014." IDC analyst Ramon Llamas said Friday that many of the remaining shipments will be by a Japanese vendor of devices using a variant of Symbian (one not used by Nokia) to wireless carrier NTT Docomo.
About 6.3 million devices running all versions of the Symbian OS will ship in 2013. IDC projects that 1.6 million Symbian devices will ship in 2014, and none the following year.
Nokia wouldn't disclose the size of the worldwide Symbian installed base, though various research firms put the number above 250 million. The OS base had reached 100 million devices in 2006, about five years after the first open Symbian OS smartphone, the Nokia 9210 Communicator, was launched.
Symbian held more than 70% of the smartphone market in 2006, and then proceeded to decline to less than 4% in 2012, according to IDC. Symbian will claim less than 1% of the market at the end of 2013.
Symbian Ltd. first developed the Symbian OS for ARM processors. The OS was a next-generation of Psion Software's EPOC. Nokia became a partner with Symbian Ltd., Ericsson and Motorola in the development venture in 1998.
Motorola, Samsung, LG and Sony Ericsson all had built Symbian smartphones at one time, along with Nokia, but had gradually moved off the platform by 2010.
What was wrong with Symbian?
Several analysts seconded Nokia's Durrant contention that Symbian OS was getting too complex to develop effective software for smartphones. Analysts particularly cited Symbian's inability to open up the smartphone to new markets, such as music, video and apps.
"Symbian never had an ecosystem that could provide the derivative revenues that Android, iOS, BlackBerry and Windows Phone can. Those additional revenues these days are very important to phone makers," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates.
"Symbian was a difficult OS to program for and didn't have the richness or user interface of the more modern OSes. You couldn't have done an Angry Birds on Symbian seven years ago," Gold said. "If you ask developers about Symbian, they hated programming to it, because it's hard. And that matters, obviously."
Lessons from Symbian
Gold and others believe Accenture will likely let Symbian die so its ashes can be scattered on the dustheap of old OSes, like Windows 3.1 and MS-DOS. Even BlackBerry let its older OS die. It used QNX in the new BlackBerry 10 OS, Gold said.
"Everything has a lifecycle and there are a lot of OSes that in their day were the epitome of modernness," Gold said.
"The same thing could absolutely happen to Android or iOS in a decade, but who knows? They could be replaced by something revolutionary," he added.
Especially for smartphones, the longer-term future is hard to predict, as new wearable devices emerge such as Google Glass or watches with computing power that can work wirelessly.
"In 10 years, anything could happen," added Llamas of IDC.
"Just look at the last five years. There's been iOS and then Android and Tizen and Firefox and BlackBerry 10. During that time, WebOS came and went," he added.
This story, "As Once-Mighty Symbian Enters Hospice, Will it be Missed?" was originally published by Computerworld.