16 June 2008

Anticipating the next ten years of smartphone innovation

Filed under: Essay contest, Symbian — David Wood @ 5:17 pm

This June, Symbian is celebrating its tenth anniversary. As someone who has been a core member of Symbian’s executive management team throughout these ten roller-coaster years, I’d like to share some of my personal reflections on the remarkable smartphone innovations that have taken place over that time – and, in that light, to consider what the next ten years may bring.

It was on 24 June 1998 that the formation of Symbian was announced to the world. The industry’s leading phone manufacturers were to cooperate to fund further development of the operating system known at the time as EPOC32 (this name dates from the inception of the OS, four years earlier, inside the UK-based PDA manufacturer Psion). The funding would enable the operating system to power numerous diverse models of advanced mobile phones – known, in virtue of their rich programmability, as “smartphones”. The news echoed far and wide. In time, the funding repaid investors handsomely: more than 200 million Symbian-based smartphones have already been sold, earning our customers substantial profits. It’s not just our direct customers that have benefited: a fertile ecosystem of partner companies is sharing in an ongoing technological and market success.

But there have been many road bumps along the way – and many surprises. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the degree of difficulty in actually bringing smartphones to market. We time and again under-estimated the complexity of the entire evolving smartphone software system – mistakenly thinking that it would take only around 12 months for significant new products to mature, whereas in reality the effort required was often considerably higher. To our dismay, numerous potential world-beating products were cancelled, on account of lengthy gestation periods. Or, when they did reach the market, their window of opportunity had passed, so their sales were disappointing. For each breakthrough Symbian-based phone that set the market alight, there were almost as many others that were shelved, or failed to live up to expectations. For this reason, incidentally, when I see commentators becoming highly excited about the prospects of possible new smartphone operating systems, I prefer to reserve my judgement. I know that, just because an industry giant is behind a new smartphone solution, it does not follow that early expectations will be translated into tangible unit sales. With ever-increasing feature requirements, operator specifications, and usability demands, smartphone software keeps on growing in complexity. It requires tremendous skill to integrate an entire software stack to meet a rapidly evolving target. If you pick a sub-optimal smartphone OS as your starting point, you’ll be storing up more trouble for yourself.

Another surprise was in some of the key characteristics of successful smartphones. In 1998, we failed to anticipate that most mobile phones would eventually contain a high quality digital camera. It was only after several years that we realised that the “top secret” (and therefore rarely discussed) features of forthcoming products from different customers were actually the same – namely an embedded camera application. More recently, the prevalence of smartphones with embedded GPS chips has also been a happy surprise. Mapping and location services are in the process of transforming mobile phones, today, in similar way to their earlier transformation by still and then video cameras. This observation strengthens my faith in the critical importance of openness in a smartphone operating system: the task of the OS provider isn’t to impose a single vision about the future of mobile phones, but is to enable different industry players to experiment, as easily as possible, with bringing their different visions for mobile phones into reality.

As a measure of the progress with smartphone technology, let’s briefly compare the specs of two devices: the Ericsson R380, which was the first successful Symbian-powered smartphone (on sale from September 2000 – and a technological marvel in its day), and the recent best-seller, Nokia’s N95 8GB:

  • The R380 had a black and white touch screen, whereas the N95 screen has 16 million colours
  • The R380 ran circuit switched data over GSM (2G), whereas the N95 runs over HSDPA (3.5G)
  • The R380 supported WAP browsing, whereas the N95 has full-featured web browsing
  • The R380 had only a small number of built-in applications: PIM, and some utilities and games
  • The N95 includes GPS, Bluetooth, wireless LAN, FM radio, a 5 mega-pixel camera, and a set of built-in applications that’s far too long to list here!

Another telling difference between these two time periods is in the number of Symbian smartphone projects in progress (each with significant resources allocated to them). During the first years of Symbian’s existence, the number of different projects could be counted on the fingers of two hands. In contrast, at the end of March 2008, there were no less than 70 distinct smartphone models under development, from all the leading phone manufacturers. That’s a phenomenal pipeline of future market-leading products.

Although smartphones have come a long way in the last ten years, the next ten years are likely to witness even more growth and innovation:

  • Component prices will continue to fall – resulting in smartphones at prices to suit all pockets
  • Quality, performance, and robustness will continue to improve, meaning that the appeal of smartphones extends beyond technology aficionados and early adopters, into the huge mainstream audience of “ordinary users” for whom reliability and usability have pivotal importance
  • Word of mouth will spread the news that phones can have valuable uses other than voice calls and text messages: more and more users are discovering the joys of mobile web interaction, mobile push email, mobile access to personal and business calendars and information, and so on
  • The smartphone ecosystem will continue to devise, develop, and deploy interesting new services for smartphones, addressing all corners of human life and personal need
  • The pipeline of forthcoming new smartphone models will continue to strengthen.

It is no wonder that analysts talk about a time, not so far into the future, when there will be one billion smartphones in use around the world. The software that is at the heart of the majority of these devices will have a good claim to being the most widely used software on the planet. Symbian OS is in the pole position to win that race, but of course, nothing can be taken for granted.

Symbian’s understanding of the probable evolution of smartphones over the decade ahead is guided, first and foremost, by the extraordinary insight we gain from the trusted relationships we have built up and nurtured over many years with the visionaries, leaders, gurus, and countless thoughtful foot soldiers in our customer and partner companies. As the history of Symbian has unfolded, these relationships of “customer intimacy” have deepened and flourished: our customers and partners have seen that we treated their insights and ideas with respect and with due confidentiality – and that has prompted them to share even more of their thinking (their hopes and their fears) about the future of smartphones. In turn, this shapes our extensive roadmap of future enhancements to Symbian OS technology.

To provide additional checks on our thinking about future issues and opportunities for smartphones, Symbian is inaugurating an essay contest, which is open to entries from students at universities throughout the world. Up to ten essays will win a prize of £1000 each – essays need to be submitted before the end of September, and winners will be announced at the Symbian Smartphone Show in October. Essays should address the overall theme of “The next wave of smartphone innovation”. For details of how to enter the contest, see http://www.symbian.com/news/essaycontest/.

As a guide for potential entrants, Symbian has announced a set of six research sub-themes, which are also areas that Symbian believes deserve further investigation in universities or other research institutions:

  1. Device evolution / revolution through 2012-2015: The smartphones of the future are likely to be significantly different from those of today. Although today’s smartphones have tremendous capability, those reaching the market in 2012-2015 are likely to put today’s devices into the shade. What clues are there, about the precise characteristics of these devices?
  2. Improved development and delivery methodologies: The dramatically increasing scale and complexity of smartphone development projects mean that these projects tend to become lengthy and difficult – posing significant commercial challenges.
  3. Success factors for mobile applications and mobile operating systems: What are the factors that significantly impact adoption of mobile software? What can be done to address the factors responsible for low adoption?
  4. Possible breakthrough applications and markets: The search for “killer apps” for smartphones continues. Are there substantial new smartphone application markets waiting to be unlocked by new features at the operating system level?
  5. Possible breakthrough technology improvements: Smartphone applications and services depend on underlying technology, which will come under mounting stress due to increased demands from data, processing, throughput, graphics, and so on.
  6. Improved university collaboration methods: What are the most effective and efficient ways for universities and Symbian to work together?

For lists of questions for each of these sub-themes, see www.symbian.com/news/essaycontest/topics/.

The evolution of the “smartphone” concept itself is particularly important. Whereas successful smartphones have mainly been portrayed so far as “phones first” and as “communications-centric devices”, they are nowadays increasingly being appreciated and celebrated for their computer capabilities. Some of our customers have already been emphasising to end users that their latest devices are “multimedia computers” or even instances of “computer 2.0”. Personally I prefer the name “iPC” (short for “inter-personal computers”) as a likely replacement for “smartphone”. Whereas Symbian’s main technology challenges in the last ten years tended to involve telephony protocols, our main technology challenges of the next ten years will tend to involve concepts from contemporary mainstream computing.

The scale of the future opportunity for iPCs dwarfs that for smartphones, just as the scale of the opportunity for smartphones dwarfed that of the original PDAs. But there’s nothing automatic or easy about this. We’ll have to work just as hard and just as smart in the next ten years, to solve some astonishingly difficult problems, as we’ve ever worked in the past. We’ll need all our wisdom and ingenuity to navigate some radical transitions in both market and technology. Here are just some of the ways in which devices of 2018 will differ from those of 2008.

  • From the WWW to the WWC: Nicholas Carr has written one of the great technology books of 2008. It’s called “The big switch: rewiring the world, from Edison to Google”. With good justification, Carr advances the phrase “world wide computer” to describe what the WWW (world wide web) is becoming: a hugely connected source of massive computing power. Terminals – both PCs and iPCs – are increasingly becoming like sockets, which connect into a grid that provides intelligent services as well as rich data. The consequences of this are hard to foretell, but there will be losers as well as winners. The local intelligence on the iPC will act as a smart portal into a much mightier intelligence that lives on the Internet.
  • Harvesting power from the environment: Efficient usage of limited battery power has been a constant hallmark of Symbian software. With ever greater bandwidth and faster processing speeds, the demands on batteries will become even more pressing. Future iPCs might be able to sidestep this challenge by drawing power from their environment. For example, the BBC recently reported how a contraption connected to a person’s knee can generate enough electricity, reasonably unobtrusively, from just one minute of walking, to power a present-day mobile phone for 30 minutes. Ultra-thin nano-materials that convert ambient light into electricity are another possibility.
  • New paradigms of usability: Given ever larger numbers of applications and greater functionality, no system of hierarchical menus is going to be able to provide users with an “intuitive” or “obvious” guide to using the device. It’s like the way the original listing “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web” – which formed a hierarchically organised set of links, known as “Yahoo” – became replaced by search engines as the generally preferred entry point to the ever richer variety of web pages. For this reason, UIs on iPCs look likely to become driven by intelligent front-end search engines, which respond to user queries by offering seamless choices between both offline and online functionality on their devices. Smart search will be supported by smart recommendations.
  • Short-cutting screen and keyboard: Another drawback of present day smartphones is the relatively fiddly nature of screen and keyboard. How much more convenient if the information in the display could somehow be conveyed directly to the biological brain of the user – and likewise if detectors of brain activity could convert thought patterns into instructions transmitted to the iPC. It sounds mind-boggling, and perhaps that’s what it is, in a literal sense. Nano-technology could make this a reality sooner than we imagine.

If some of these thoughts sparked your interest, I suggest that you bookmark the dates 21-22 October in your diary. That’s when Symbian will bring a host of ecosystem experts together, at the free-to-attend Symbian Smartphone Show, in London. It will be your chance to hear 10 keynote presentations from major industry figures and over 60 seminars led by marketplace experts. You’ll be able to network with over 4000 representatives from major handset vendors, content providers, network operators, and developers. To register, visit smartphoneshow.com. Much of the discussion will focus on the theme, “The next wave of smartphone innovation”. Your contributions will be welcome!

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