What are the implications of Nokia buying Psion’s stake in Symbian, taking its ownership to 63.3%?
If you assume Nokia takes up the 31% share that Psion is putting up for grabs, then it gives Nokia a share far greater than any of the other partners. The next biggest shareholder is Ericsson with 17.5%, then Panasonic at 7.9%. But even though Nokia would be by far the largest stakeholder it would still be shy of the 70% that would give it outright control of the venture.
It was one thing to see Motorola make its graceful exit from Symbian. (Although it has continued to release the odd Symbian phone, most recently the A1000 smartphone, it has also been working with Windows Mobile and Linux.) But Psion, which holds 31.1% of Symbian, exiting from the partnership is more symbolic, because it was on Psion’s EPOC that Symbian was based. But it is still symbolic. For a while now the rest of the mobile world, and operators in particular, has suspected that Symbian would become a Nokia shop in all but name.
Not that those involved in Symbian would agree. A spokesperson for Symbian pointed out that the sale to Nokia is not nearly confirmed, and even if it received full board approval would take until July 2004 to clear.
A spokesperson for SonyEricsson echoed the point that nothing is certain yet, and that the sale has yet to go through. He added that SonyEricsson remained fully committed to Symbian, and that he expected Nokia to remain committed to the board structure of the alliance.
The SonyEricsson spokesperson also denied that there was wide industry concern about Nokia effectively taking over Symbian.
“I wouldn’t say there is especially widespread concern. People are aware of the situation and are watching it closely but they are not pressing the panic button as yet. The Symbian management board is in place and although Nokia at present has a much larger share than other partners they remain committed to the management board staying in place.”
The perception that Symbian equals Nokia wasn’t one SonyEricsson recognised, either.
“With the market share for the [SonyEricsson] P800 and P900, which are both based on the Symbian OS, you could regard Symbian as SonyEricsson, as we have the market share. Some may regard Symbian as Nokia, but it’s all about how you use the OS and who makes best use of the Symbian platform.”
Nokia itself has been at pains to point out that it is not interested in sole ownership of the direction of Symbian. But there is a problem for all collaborative ventures in keeping up with the single-minded direction of a Microsoft, say. In that regard, if Nokia regards Symbian as critical to its future innovation and growth, it may wish to have more direct control over the venture.
That, says Symbian, is exactly why Symbian is a common platform that handset manufacturers can license, but on which they can then innovate — for instance by adding their own user interface.
As a byword, the much-publicised opposition to Psion’s sale by shareholders holding a total 31% stake in the company was driven by a desire to make more money from a proposed future IPO than a sale now. It was not about preserving British technology for the benefit of Britain, or the status of Symbian as an open mobile operating system for the wider good of the industry. It was about the return on investment for institutional and small investors who felt they stood to gain more by Psion staying in Symbian until a possible future pay off. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but attempts to portray objections to the sale in a moral light are wide of the mark.