Nokia's pact with Microsoft puts Symbian developers in play

Nokia has decided which OS will succeed its Symbian: now mobile app developers must place their bets too

Developers who had previously built a business around coding apps for Symbian smartphones were put on notice Friday that they should pick another platform, as Nokia announced its switch to Microsoft's Windows Phone 7. Other platforms will be maneuvering to win them over while Nokia tries to encourage them to retrain and work with its new partner.

Symbian, the OS in Nokia's smartphones, was a fading star even before Friday's announcement that Nokia will drop it in favor of Windows Phone 7 as part of a broader partnership with Microsoft. Nokia's market share had been slipping ever since the launch of Apple's first iPhone, which simplified the distribution of mobile apps with its online App Store. However, things went downhill faster after the arrival of Android, sales of which overtook Symbian in the fourth quarter, according to some estimates.

There are around 200 million Symbian phones in use, 50 million of them compatible with its Qt app development framework, according to Purnima Kochikar, head of Forum Nokia & Developer Community. The company expects to sell another 150 million Symbian phones, including some yet-to-be-released models, before finally abandoning the platform altogether. At current sales rates, that would take it just over a year, although sales can be expected to slow now that the platform is on its way out. And given the rate at which consumers replace their mobile phones, it's unlikely that the number of Symbian devices actually in use will grow during this period.

"I suspect this won't affect the current crop of Symbian^3 phones, ... but this does sound like the death knell for Symbian. A sad day," said Neil Briscoe, in a post on the All About Symbian forums.

App developers targeting the Symbian platform, then, are faced with a shrinking market with a limited life. Those targeting MeeGo, another Nokia-backed OS that hasn't even reached the market yet, are in an even worse situation: there is no installed base, and Nokia says that it will release just one MeeGo-based device before casting the platform adrift.

Nokia will do what it can to help developers code for Windows Phone, company executives said. However, that help won't extend to porting Qt, the development framework with which Symbian and MeeGo developers are familiar, to Windows Phone.

"It would fragment that environment, which would be repeating our mistakes of the past," said Nokia spokesman James Etheridge.

One thing Nokia says it can still offer developers is a large market for their work through its Ovi store. Nokia expects Microsoft to create developer tools that will make it easy to sell Windows Phone apps through that store, which it says has 300,000 daily users and 4 million downloads a day. More than 100 mobile operators offer direct billing for purchases made from the Ovi store, eliminating the need for app buyers to hand over credit card details -- a barrier to purchases.

So what's a Symbian or MeeGo developer to do? Retrain on Apple's iOS? Android? Windows Phone? Or code for the BlackBerry?

Nokia CEO Stephen Elop offered a little help eliminating the possibilities, saying: "This is now a three-horse race." His recent memo to Nokia staffers named iOS and Android as the chief threats facing the company.

Elop, who just five months ago was head of Microsoft's business software group, seems certain that Windows Phone is the third horse, but data from Appcelerator, a company offering cross-platform coding tools for mobile apps, raises some doubts about that.

Around 38 percent of the 2,235 Appcelerator users surveyed by IDC in January said they were interested in developing for BlackBerry phones, just ahead of Windows Phone at 36 percent -- with Symbian trailing at 12 percent. (Android and iPhone, the two platforms Appcelerator's products support, each scored around 90 percent in the survey.)

(With additional reporting by Mikael Ricknäs in Stockholm.)

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Peter Sayer

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