Nokia hopes Symbian phones will help it win US market

Nokia knows it has to win the U.S. market if it wants to be successful with its forthcoming Symbian smartphones—but it admits that its lackluster offerings have kept it from making headway here in the last few years.

“We have to address the availability of compelling devices in the U.S. market,” David Rivas, a vice president at Nokia, said during the CTIA conference in Las Vegas on Wednesday. “I don’t disagree that we have work to do with respect to devices.”

Winning over the U.S. market is particularly important now that developers have the most momentum here. “We have a concentration of activity in mobile development in the U.S. now,” he said.

Developers are drawn to the “coolest” devices with good user and development experiences, he said. While Nokia thinks that it can offer those experiences, it’s lacking on the compelling device front, Rivas said. “We need devices in the market where the developers are,” he said.

Nokia has been talking for years now about how important the U.S. market is, but despite opening research offices here and talking about its interest in the market, it has made little headway. While Nokia is still the number one mobile phone maker in the world, its market share in the U.S. is tiny.

A lack of compelling phones was not the only thing that Rivas was hard on Nokia about. He admitted that Nokia shouldn’t be playing catch up in terms of offering an attractive smartphone platform and application development environment.

Five years ago Nokia had an app store for its S60 phones, before many other phone makers supported third party apps. “Shame on us to be sure for not being front and center” now that loading apps onto phones has become more mainstream, he said.

Nokia expects to begin offering its first phone based on the revamped Symbian OS in the first half of this year. However, despite Rivas’ comments about the importance of the U.S. market, he was quick to specify that the first phone won’t necessarily be available in the U.S.

The Symbian Foundation released the code for the updated version of the OS earlier this year. In 2008, Nokia bought out Symbian and created a foundation around the OS with the intent of making it open source.

Nokia also bought a company called Trolltech and is using its QT application framework on top of Symbian. With that comes a new user interface for the OS. Users of Nokia’s phones running S60 Symbian, its former smartphone platform, had complained about its outdated user interface.

Rivas believes that Nokia will attract developers because of the improved development environment and an improved end product. QT offers an advanced development environment in which developers can use familiar tools, he said. So far, the response from developers has been positive, he said.

In addition to the improved user interface, Nokia has worked hard to fix some other issues that plagued its Symbian phones in the past, he said. For instance, Nokia has worked to dramatically reduce the number of clicks required by users to perform many actions.

Rivas said Nokia is confident in its choice of Symbian to run the bulk of its smartphones. “We’re pretty happy with the choices we’ve made,” Rivas said. But Symbian will be playing catch-up with other smartphone platforms that have gained momentum over the past few years, including the iPhone and Android phones.

Symbian Foundation leaders think that the market is young enough that the platform will have plenty of opportunity to compete. “The market is still in its infancy,” said John Forsyth, who runs technology and strategy for the Symbian Foundation. “It’s only at a tiny fraction of the size it will be.”

Still, he said that following Google’s marketing blitz around Android, Symbian faces tough competition. “I think the fundamentals are good. We have work to do on perception especially in the U.S. That’s a big mountain for us to climb,” he said.

That perception will be based on the devices when they actually come out and he’s confident that the market will respond well to them.

In addition, Symbian has some advantages over competitors, he said. Because it has been in the mobile OS market for many years, it knows how to handle platform updates, he said. So when Symbian releases a new version of the OS, end users shouldn’t face some of the fragmentation issues that users of other platforms face when their applications don’t work on updated software, he said.

Also, the Symbian OS was designed for high-end smartphones but can scale down. That’s important for phone makers that are constantly trying to fit a wide array of features on the lowest-cost hardware. “This is where Symbian’s advantage of being built for mobile from day one makes a big difference,” Forsyth said.

While it’s notable that Symbian has the world’s largest phone maker using the software, it could gain more momentum if it had many licensees. Sony Ericsson has said it will use the operating system but Motorola, which was once a Symbian supporter, has been noncommittal.

“We do think the opportunity in others coming along translates into real value for Nokia,” said Rivas. With more vendors comes greater phone volume which attracts developers to make great products that attract more users, he said.

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