Oddly, Symbian at number 2 makes it more credible as a smartphone OS

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This is going to sound strange, radical, blasphemous and counter-intuitive, but I've a sneaking suspicion that the recent reported (whether it is actually true yet or not) overtaking of Symbian OS by Android on the world stage does, in one fell swoop, more for Symbian's credibility than all the technical slides, sales numbers and glowing reviews from the last few years put together.

The report of the overtake was by Canalys, which does seem to have stretched the numbers to make the point somewhat (and to gain a huge amount of headline traffic), as Rafe noted in our coverage of the story. However, if the overtake hasn't happened yet, it's almost certain to be announced by the other major industry analysts in their Q1 2011 figures, such is the growth of Android and the accompanying trend lines, shown below:

Composite sources smartphone shipments

Now, over the last 3 years (AP - After iPhone), the industry analysts and tech media have been falling over themselves to rush into redefining what a smartphone is - and isn't, a subject I've covered in some detail (latest piece here). For the entire intervening period, I've heard these influential period talk (usually rightly) glowingly about the benefits of iPhones and of (post 2008) Android smartphones, pointing out the huge growth and massive sales - and then as a footnote to each piece or comment would be the throwaway line, in small print or in a very quiet voice "of course, Symbian is the world leader by a long way, but we don't count these devices as smartphones because that way our preferred platforms get to be on top we don't like the UI."

In other words, Symbian smartphones have been dismissed by a lot of tech snobs analysts and journalists, in part jealous of Symbian's success, in part because of Symbian's European origins (rather than American), in part because Symbian devices don't all cost the earth and come with cutting edge large capacitive touchscreens. 

And now, all of a sudden, with the announcement that "Android has overtaken Symbian", we have Symbian being name checked everywhere you look and listen (e.g. on the most recent TwiT podcast, at some length). Now that analysts and media no longer have to justify pretending that Symbian, as market leader, doesn't exist, or that it's only for 'feature phones' (an assertion that was always utterly wrong and always made me rather cross), it has become acceptable to talk about it and Android in the same breath, with Symbian as the number 2 smartphone platform in the world. Ooh, who'd have thought?

In other words, Symbian's credibility in the eyes of most of the tech writers and broadcasters of the world (AAS excepted) has been given a significant bump, rather paradoxically, by being dethroned by a competitor. Funny old world, isn't it?

Now, you may be thinking "Ah, but if Symbian is on a massive downward slide then it's not going to be very credible for very long". The truth is that it isn't on a big slide. You saw the Symbian sales numbers rising above, in Rafe's chart? The rise wasn't as steep as Android's by a long way, but the numbers were still going in the right direction. Here's an interesting exercise: for The Phones Show, I regularly produce my own predictions (here's show 131, which contained the chart below), based on long term trends, on where the various smartphone platforms are going in the next four years.

I know, I know, dangerous voodoo future prediction, but I do have quite a lot of data to draw on - and it's interesting taking the chart back as well to 2007, when the iPhone was announced and the Nokia N95 was in its heyday. And apologies in advance that the colour legends don't match Rafe's - he and I must standardise some day! The vertical scale is in millions of devices (based on each platform) sold per year.

Smartphone Trends, 2007 to 2014

I hadn't previously thought about there only being three big 'winners' in a few years time, but if my trends/chart are anywhere near right, that's how it's going to pan out. Android, iOS and Symbian. With no other platforms remotely close.

Thus for the next few years, far from the 'irrelevance' inferred upon it by many tech analysts from 2008 to 2010, we've got Symbian at number 2 (and possibly one day at number 3) and validated as such, recognised as a genuine 'smartphone' platform by all. At last. 

It's at this point that I cover up my crystal ball (£4.99 from the local flea emporium) and depart to the pub with fellow muser Mr Salmon, to carry on mulling over perceptions in the mobile industry over a well earned pint.... If you want to take me to task over the above analysis, then that's where you'll find me please use the comments below!

Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 3 Feb 2011