Were Nokia and Symbian always inter-dependent?

Several readers pointed out that in my discussion on the market share of modular vs. inter-dependent market shares for smartphones, Nokia was incorrectly classified as having an inter-dependent software architecture since the Symbian platform is/was a modular component.

The problem is that the relationship between Symbian and Nokia is not that of independent modules. Nominally, the two are independent and mutually exclusive, but, in practice, Symbian has always been so heavily dependent and influenced by Nokia that it’s never been possible to declare its governance fully independent.

I won’t describe the full history since there are many other sources (good example here.) But I will point out that since Nokia licensed Symbian exclusively and Symbian obtained the vast bulk of license fees from Nokia, the relationship was one similar to a bilateral monopoly.

Nokia’s bargaining power over Symbian was always high enough to affect its operations. “Ownership” does not only infer a formal control over equity, and many would agree that Nokia “owned” Symbian even when it held less than 50% of the equity. The relationship was so tight, that even though there were other members of the consortium with board seats, the licensing by Nokia’s competitors was always very limited. The only significant non-Nokia revenue for Symbian came from Japan where Nokia did not have a presence.

After Symbian was effectively acquired by Nokia, the ownership became both de jure and de facto. The open sourcing of the Symbian code made it no less a Nokia operation than the open sourcing of Android makes it no less a Google operation.

So for all intents and purposes, the relationship between Symbian and Nokia makes Nokia’s smartphone hardware inter-dependent on Symbian’s software.

Now, given that the way the products are built in practice may be far from integrated, it would seem that Nokia’s management captured the worst of both worlds: Modular implementation of an inter-dependent business. Nokia captured all the downside of modularity (poor integration and polish) without any of the benefits (e.g. flexible supply chain or lower R&D.)