Market research is a great way to procrastinate. I’ve spent quite a lot of time getting to know what platforms I should be targeting just so that I don’t waste my actual development time on building something that no one will bother using. In this time that would have been better spent actually coding something I’ve come to notice an interesting trend in the world of mobile applications: everyone seems to be ignoring the biggest market of them all, Symbian. Owned by Nokia Symbian smart phones still dominate the market with over 45% market share which dwarfs all of its competitors to the point of being more than RIM (Blackberry) and iPhone combined. So why isn’t every other developer jumping at the opportunity to exploit this market to the point that they have done for the likes of Android and the iPhone? The answer, to me at least, has its roots in simplistic ideals but overall is quite convoluted.
At its heart the neglect of the Symbian platform can be traced back to one thing: money. Symbian has been around for quite some time (its ancestors can be found as far back as the late 1980s) although its current incarnation in the world of smartphones made its first appearance back in 2001, opening up a world where a phone’s capabilities could be expanded by the installation of third party applications. Its release was closely followed by the first release of PocketPC (later renamed Windows Mobile) that supported smartphones but Symbian still had the upper hand thanks to its uptake with many of the large phone manufacturers. As time went on Symbian found its way onto nearly all of Nokia’s advanced handsets which, coupled with their easy to use interface and overwhelming feature sets, led to astonishing popularity with the 100 millionth Symbian handset being sold only 5 years later with total shipments today exceeding 390 million.
Still unlike the iPhone or Android platform there really wasn’t any incentive to develop for them. The segmentation of both the Symbian and Windows Mobile market was and still is quite vast with no real guarantee of what features or specifications one phone might have. Whilst there are still many applications that can be developed despite these limitations many developers shunned the mobile space because apart from corporate applications there was no tangible way to monetize their efforts. Then along comes the iPhone with one standard set of hardware, a large fanbase and a distribution channel with built in monetization for any developer willing to shell out the $99 fee. After that the mobile space began to open up considerably but Symbian, even with its giant market share, has yet to capitalize on the mobile application market.
This means that whilst the Symbian market might be the largest of them all its also the least likely for any developer to be able to profit from. Symbian handsets cater to a much larger market than any other, including the lower end that even Android fails to capture. Unlike Apple, which deliberately targeted a market with cash to spare, Symbian users are the least likely to pony up some cash for an application. Additionally since there’s been no real central, easy to use medium for users to get applications on their Symbian phones (I know, I tried it on my N95) the vast majority of them won’t be in the mindset to go after such an application, favouring web based applications instead.
There is also, of course, the technical challenge behind building an application on these platforms. Whilst I’ve only dabbled in Windows Mobile (which for a C# developer was incredibly easy) recent reportsshow that Symbian is not only the hardest it also requires two to three times the amount of code to complete the same application on an iPhone or Android handset respectively. Whilst learning another language is really just a lesson in semantics it still slows your development time down considerably and when you’ve got your eye on making some money from your venture a steep learning curve will be a major barrier to entry. There has been some work to reduce this somewhat with the integration of the S60 platform with the open source cross platform library QT, but my previous experiences with that framework don’t make me so hopeful that it will make developing for Symbian any easier.
The ignored giant Symbian is an interesting phenomenon as intuition would tell you that the largest install base would drive the largest secondary markets. As a developer I still find it hard to ignore the call of almost 400 million devices that could possibly run my software but knowing a few people who own Symbian devices (read: they use their phone as a phone, not much else) I still feel like my effort would be better spent elsewhere. As time goes by it will be interesting to see if Symbian can continue to hold onto its dominance in this space or if they will eventually lose out to the young upstarts Android and iOS.