Symbian originated from EPOC32, an operating system created by Psion in the 1990s.

In June 1998, Psion Software became Symbian Ltd., a major joint venture between Psion and phone manufacturers Ericsson, Motorola, and Nokia.

Afterward, different software platforms were created for Symbian, backed by different groups of mobile phone manufacturers. They include S60 (Nokia, Samsung, and LG), UIQ (Sony Ericsson and Motorola) and MOAP(S) (Japanese only such as Fujitsu, Sharp)

Symbian was at various stages difficult to develop for: First (at around early-to-mid-2000s) due to the complexity of then the only native programming languages OPL and Symbian C++ and of the OS itself; then the obstinate developer bureaucracy, along with high prices of various IDEs and SDKs, which were prohibitive for independent or very small developers; and then the subsequent fragmentation, which was in part caused by infighting among and within manufacturers, each of which also had their own IDEs and SDKs. All of this discouraged third-party developers, and served to cause the native app ecosystem for Symbian not to evolve to a scale later reached by Apple's App Store or Android's Google Play.

With no major competition in the smartphone OS then (Palm OS and Windows Mobile were comparatively small players), Symbian reached as high as 67% of the global smartphone market share in 2006.

In June 2008, Nokia announced the acquisition of Symbian Ltd., and a new independent non-profit organization called the Symbian Foundation was established. Symbian OS and its associated user interface S60, UIQ and MOAP(S) were contributed by their owners Nokia, NTT DoCoMo, Sony Ericsson, and Symbian Ltd., to the foundation with the objective of creating the Symbian platform as a royalty-free, open-source software, under the OSI- and FSF-approved Eclipse Public License (EPL).

The platform was designated as the successor to Symbian OS, following the official launch of the Symbian Foundation in April 2009.

Nokia became the major contributor to Symbian's code since it then possessed the development resources for both the Symbian OS core and the user interface. Since then Nokia maintained its own code repository for the platform development, regularly releasing its development to the public repository. Symbian was intended to be developed by a community-led by the Symbian Foundation, which was first announced in June 2008 and officially launched in April 2009.

Some important components within Symbian OS were licensed from third parties, which prevented the foundation from publishing the full source under EPL immediately; instead much of the source was published under a more restrictive Symbian Foundation License (SFL) and access to the full source code was limited to member companies only, although membership was open to any organization. Also, the open-source Qt framework was introduced to Symbian in 2010, as the primary upgrade path to MeeGo, which was to be the next mobile operating system to replace and supplant Symbian on high-end devices; Qt was by its nature free and very convenient to develop with. Several other frameworks were deployed to the platform, among them Standard C/C++, Python, Ruby, and Flash Lite. IDEs and SDKs were developed and then released for free, and app development for Symbian picked up.

The Symbian platform was officially made available as an open-source code in February 2010.

The Symbian community objective was to publish the source code for the entire Symbian platform under the OSI- and FSF-approved Eclipse Public License (EPL). The code was published under EPL on 4 February 2010; Symbian Foundation reported this event to be the largest codebase moved to Open Source in history.

With market share sliding from 39% in Q32010 to 31% in Q42010, Symbian was losing ground to iOS and Android quickly, eventually falling behind Android in Q4 2010, Stephen Elop was appointed the CEO of Nokia in September 2010

In November 2010, the Symbian Foundation announced that due to changes in global economic and market conditions (and also a lack of support from members such as Samsung and Sony Ericsson), it would transition to a licensing-only organization; Nokia announced it would take over the stewardship of the Symbian platform. Symbian Foundation would remain the trademark holder and licensing entity and would only have non-executive directors involved.

On 11 February 2011, Nokia announced a partnership with Microsoft that would see Nokia adopt Windows Phone as its primary smartphone platform, and Symbian would be gradually phased out, together with MeeGo. As a consequence, Symbian's market share fell, and application developers for Symbian dropped out rapidly. Research in June 2011 indicated that over 39% of mobile developers using Symbian at the time of publication was planning to abandon the platform.

By 5 April 2011, Nokia ceased to openly source any portion of the Symbian software and reduced its collaboration to a small group of pre-selected partners in Japan. Source code released under the EPL remains available in third-party repositories.

On 22 June 2011, Nokia made an agreement with Accenture for an outsourcing program. Accenture will provide Symbian-based software development and support services to Nokia through 2016; about 2,800 Nokia employees became Accenture employees as of October 2011

The Accenture transfer was completed on 30 September 2011.

Nokia terminated its support of software development and maintenance for Symbian with effect from 1 January 2014, thereafter refusing to publish new or changed Symbian applications or content in the Nokia Store and terminating its 'Symbian Signed' program for software certification.