I've written before that I had my doubts about the supposed conversion of the world's mobile population to smartphones. And in particular, that many supposed "smartphone shipment" graphs include the use of locked-down smartphone OS's in places like Japan, and smartphones bought just because the user liked the looks of a device, rather than caring about the software.
(Note to US readers: many people buy smartphones in Europe because they're Nokia's or high-end SonyEricssons and have nice design / camera / music functions - but neither know nor care that they're "smart". Many Nokia N95 owners would rather eat their own shoes than look for and downloads apps to their phone). Michael Mace's coruscating post about Nokia's weird attempts to stimulate interest in downloadable apps for handsets in the US is right on the money).
So there's only a small proportion of mobile enthusiasts/geeks who actually WANT smartphones because of applications. Obviously there are people who want (or are given) a particular capability for business use (step forward BlackBerry and some Windows devices), or who buy iPhones because, well, they're iPhones.
So against that backdrop it's interesting to scrutinise Symbian's sales, which look pretty lacklustre to me. It's latest results press release talks up its cumulative 200m deployments, but that hides a less pretty picture looking at shipments:
Q108 - 18.5m
Q407 - 22.4m
Q307 - 20.4m
Q207 - 18.7m
Q107 - 15.9m
Q406 - 14.6m
In other words, sales are down not just seasonally since Xmas, but are even below the level of mid-2007. Against continued shipment growth of the overall market to above 1.1bn phones a year, that's not looking too promising for some observers' expectations of 30% penetration of smartphones in a few years' time.
My personal expectation is that a ceiling of 15%-ish is probably more realistic, with some grey-area definitional fuzziness around what exactly constitutes a smartphone - for example, if it's got a Linux kernel buried down in the guts of the device.
What's behind the fall? I suspect a number of factors. The Wow factor of the iPhone is one. The shift by European operators to 18 month contracts is almost certainly another. I'm not sure on shifts in the mix of OS's in DoCoMo's sales recently. But the main answer has to be that Nokia doesn't seem to be pushing the open OS harder down into the mid-tier. Put simply, customers would rather have that extra $4 of software spent instead on a better camera, or more memory.