Who Truly Owns Symbian?

Perception problems abound for Symbian with Nokia's intention to purchase Psion's stake in Symbian, says eWEEK.com's guest columnist John Lettice of The Register. Will the deal go through?

At the 3GSM World Congress this week Symbian CEO David Levin worked hard to counter the general impression that his company is either a wholly owned subsidiary of Nokia or is about to become one. Although what Levin had to say on the issue that dominated Symbians press conference at the show was technically correct, perception is already reality as far as much of the market is concerned; Nokia has agreed to buy Psions stake in Symbian, which will take Nokias stake in the company above 50 percent, and Nokia will therefore be perceived to control Symbian. If the deal goes ahead.

There are several possible reasons why it might not, but Levins real difficulty here is that the perception of Nokia dominance existed already, and that the announcement of the deal merely reinforced these perceptions. Nokia has always been the heavyweight of the operation, the company shipping most of the units and the company licensing its own Series 60 user interface to other handset manufacturers. Symbian has for several years now been an an obviously unbalanced operation, and you dont have to agree with everything Microsoft claims about Symbian to grasp that one shareholder is doing very well while most of the others are doing less so.

That applied before the Nokia-Psion deal was ever mentioned, so Levin is at least partially right when he says Nokias purchase wont make any difference to Symbian IF it goes ahead. His presentation this week, however, did not deal with the ongoing question of Symbian unbalance, but was effectively firefighting the perception that a dominant Nokia position had been formalized.

Levin leaned heavily on the Symbian corporate governance rulebook for his case. Psions desire to sell its stake means that the shares must be offered to Symbians other shareholders, and although Nokia has expressed an interest in buying them, the other shareholders have pre-emption rights, and could also express an interest. They do not yet have to do so, but at some point in the next three to four months they will have to decide whether or not to put money on the table. Some observers suggest that the proposed price of the Psion deal is attractively low, meaning that Samsung, for example, might make an offer. But some Psion shareholders think the price is rather too low too, and have set up a group to fight the deal.

Should the sale to Nokia nevertheless go ahead, Levin points out that it will not change Nokias presence on the Symbian supervisory board, and that Nokia would actually need 70 percent of Symbian in order to have control. So 50 percent might seem to the world as the obvious control point, but from an operational and structural point of view it is no different from Nokias present position.

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But perception is all. Potential customers who didnt already see Symbian as a heavy Nokia play are now considering that this might be the case a lot harder, and several companies spoken to this week saw the proposed deal as opening up the market to multiple players. It is now ceasing to look like a smartphone war between two to three major players, more like a more diverse market sustaining multiple platforms at multiple price points. Meanwhile Symbian executives are tied down arguing that Symbian is not and will not become a Nokia subsidiary. Its not fatal, but its clearly not helpful for the company.

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