dw2

19 November 2008

New mobile OSes mean development nightmares

Filed under: collaboration, fragmentation, Future of Mobile, innovation — David Wood @ 11:30 pm

Over on TechRadar, Dan Grabham has commented on one of the themes from Monday’s Future of Mobile event in the Great Hall in High Street Kensington, London:

The increase in mobile platforms caused by the advent of the Apple iPhone and Google’s Android are posing greater challenges for those who develop for mobile. That was one of the main underlying themes of this week’s Future of Mobile conference in London.

Tom Hume, Managing Director of developer Future Platforms, picked up on this theme, saying that from a development point of view things were more fragmented. “It’s clear that it’s an issue for the industry. I think it’s actually got worse in the last year or so.”

Indeed, many of the panellists representing the major OS vendors said that they expected some kind of consolidation over the coming years as completion in the mobile market becomes ever fiercer.

The theme of collaboration vs. competition was one that I covered in my own opening remarks on this panel. Before the conference, the panel chairman, Simon Rockman of Sony Ericsson, had asked the panellists to prepare a five minute intro. I’ll end this posting with a copy of what I prepared.

Before that, however, I have another comment on the event. One thing that struck me was the candid comments from many of the participants about the dreadful user experience that mobile phones deliver. So the mobile industry has no grounds for feeling pleased with itself! This was particularly emphasised during the rapid-fire “bloggers 6×6 panel”, which you can read more about from Helen Keegan’s posting – provocatively entitled “There is no future of mobile”. By the way, Helen was one of the more restrained of that panel!

So, back to my own remarks – where I intended to emphasise that, indeed, we face hard problems within our industry, and need new solutions:

This conference is called the Future of Mobile – not the Present Day of Mobile – so what I want to talk about is developments in mobile operating systems that will allow the mobile devices and mobile services of, say, 5 years time – 2013 – to live up to their full potential.

I believe that the mobile phones of 2013 will make even the most wonderful phones of today look, in comparison, jaded, weak, slow, and clunky. It’s my expectation that the phones used at that time, not just by technology enthusiasts and early adopters, but also by mainstream consumers, will be very considerably more powerful, more functional, more enchanting, more useful, more valuable, and more captivating than today’s smartphones.

To get there is going to require a huge amount of sophisticated and powerful software to be developed. That’s an enormous task. To get there, I offer you three contrasts.

The first contrast is between cooperation and competition.

The press often tries to portray some kind of monster, dramatic battle of mobile operating systems. In this battle, the people sitting around this table are fierce competitors. It’s the kind of thing that might sell newspapers. But rather than competition, I’m more interested in collaboration. The problems that have to be solved, to create the best possible mobile phone experiences of the next few years, will require cooperation between the people in the companies and organisations represented around this table – as well as with people in those companies and organisations that don’t have seats here at this moment, but which also play in our field. Instead of all of us working at odds with each other, spreading our energies thinly, creating incomplete semi-satisfactory solutions that are at odds with each, it would be far better for us to pool more of our energies and ideas.

I’m not saying that all competition should be stopped – far from it. An element of competition is vital, to prevent a market from becoming stale. But we’ve got too much of it just now. We’ve got too many operating systems that are competing with each other, and we’ve got different companies throughout the value chain competing with each other too strongly.

Where the industry needs to reach is around 3 or 4 major mobile operating systems – whereas today the number is somewhere closer to 20 – or closer to 200, if you count all the variants and value-chain complications. It’s a fragmentation nightmare, and a huge waste of effort.

As the industry consolidates over the next few years, I have no doubt that Symbian OS will be one of the small number of winning platforms. That brings me to my second contrast – the contrast between old and new – between past successes and future successes.

Last year, Symbian was the third most profitable software company in the UK. We earned licensing revenues of over 300 million dollars. We’ve been generating substantial cash for our owners. We’re in that situation because of having already shipped one quarter of a billion mobile phones running our software. There are at present some 159 different phone models, from 7 manufacturers, shipping on over 250 major operator networks worldwide. That’s our past success. It grows out of technology that’s been under development for 14 years, with parts of the design dating back 20 years.

But of course, past success is no guarantee of future success. I sometimes hear it said that Symbian OS is old, and therefore unsuited to the future. My reply is that many parts of Symbian OS are new. We keep on substantially improving it and refactoring it.

For example, we introduced a new kernel with enhanced real-time capabilities in version 8.1b. We introduced a substantial new platform security architecture in v9.0. More recently, there’s a new database architecture, a new Bluetooth implementation, and new architectures for IP networking and multi-surface graphics. We’re also on the point of releasing an important new library of so-called “high level” programming interfaces, to simplify developers’ experience with parts of the Symbian OS structure that sometimes pose difficulty – like text descriptors, active objects, and two-phase object construction and cleanup. So there’s plenty of innovation.

The really big news is that the pace of innovation is about to increase markedly – for three reasons, all tied up with the forthcoming creation of the Symbian Foundation:

  1. The first reason is a deeper and more effective collaboration between the engineering teams in Symbian and S60. This change is happening because of the acquisition of Symbian by Nokia. By working together more closely, innovations will reach the market more quickly.
  2. The second reason is because of a unification of UI systems in the Symbian space. Before, there were three UI systems – MOAP in Japan, UIQ, and S60. Now, given the increased flexibility of the latest S60 versions, the whole Symbian ecosystem will standardise on S60.
  3. The third reason is because of the transition of the Symbian platform – consisting of Symbian OS together with the S60 UI framework and applications – into open source. By adopting the best principles of open source, Symbian expects to attract many more developers than before to participate in reviewing and improving and creating new Symbian platform code. So there will be more innovation than before.

This brings me to the third of the three contrasts: openness vs. maturity.

Uniquely, the Symbian platform has a stable, well-tested, battle-hardened software base and software discipline, that copes well with the hard, hard task of large-scale software integration, handling input from many diverse and powerful customers.

Because of that, we’ll be able to cope with the flood of innovation that open source will send our way. That flood will lead to great progress for us, whereas for some other software systems, it will probably lead to chaos and fragmentation.

In summary, I see the Symbian platform as being not just one of several winners in the mobile operating system space, but actually the leading winner – and being the most widely used software platform on the planet, shipping in literally billions of great mobile devices. We’ll get there, because we’ll be at the heart of a huge community of impassioned and creative developers – the most vibrant developer ecosystem on the planet. Although the first ten years of Symbian’s history has seen many successes, the next ten years will be dramatically better.

Footnote: For other coverage of this event, see eg Tom Hume, Andrew Grill, Vero Pepperrell, Jemima Kiss, Dale Zak, and a very interesting Twitter channel (note to self: it’s time for me to stop resisting Twitter…)

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14 Comments »

  1. Give in to the power of Twitter!

    And great job taking notes on the Psion, I got rather odd looks when I brought my Psion 3c at a Mobile Monday recently but sometimes oldschool is the only way to go 😉

    Vero
    thatcanadiangirl.co.uk

    Comment by thatcanadiangirl — 20 November 2008 @ 9:12 am

  2. Give in to the power of Twitter!

    And great job taking notes on the Psion, I got rather odd looks when I brought my Psion 3c at a Mobile Monday recently but sometimes oldschool is the only way to go 😉

    Vero
    thatcanadiangirl.co.uk

    Comment by thatcanadiangirl — 20 November 2008 @ 9:12 am

  3. Hi,

    You have very inspiring blog post there.

    I have been into mobile business since year 0 (2000) and seen some of its development. Fragmentation is bad, but not anything software world had not seen before (think computer markets back in 80s).

    The major problem with Symbian is its freak factor. It’s coded differently as anything other out there. Code is fragile, hard-to-understand, hard-to-debug. Also symbiansigned.com utter design madness gives headache to third party developers. No one really loves to work with Symbian mobile applications, but they do it because you can earn there well. I am not surprised if developers are jumping to other boats (Android/iPhone) even though Symbian should be attractive due its openess. Opening it up simple doesn’t fix the design flaws and make it joy to a developer. It took five years from Mozilla to go from Netscape to Firefox.

    Also, the future lies in web applications (maybe excluding games), so it does not matter which OS your phone runs as long as it runs a decent web browser.

    Our company has been recently working on cross-mobile (S60/iPhone currently) Python development framework – if you can shred more light on “high level programming interfaces” I’d been keen to hear, since Python is all about high level and we have shown it is possible to do mobile apps with it.

    Cheers,
    Mikko Ohtamaa
    Red Innovation
    Oulu, Finland

    Comment by Mikko Ohtamaa — 14 December 2008 @ 8:47 pm

  4. Hi,

    You have very inspiring blog post there.

    I have been into mobile business since year 0 (2000) and seen some of its development. Fragmentation is bad, but not anything software world had not seen before (think computer markets back in 80s).

    The major problem with Symbian is its freak factor. It’s coded differently as anything other out there. Code is fragile, hard-to-understand, hard-to-debug. Also symbiansigned.com utter design madness gives headache to third party developers. No one really loves to work with Symbian mobile applications, but they do it because you can earn there well. I am not surprised if developers are jumping to other boats (Android/iPhone) even though Symbian should be attractive due its openess. Opening it up simple doesn’t fix the design flaws and make it joy to a developer. It took five years from Mozilla to go from Netscape to Firefox.

    Also, the future lies in web applications (maybe excluding games), so it does not matter which OS your phone runs as long as it runs a decent web browser.

    Our company has been recently working on cross-mobile (S60/iPhone currently) Python development framework – if you can shred more light on “high level programming interfaces” I’d been keen to hear, since Python is all about high level and we have shown it is possible to do mobile apps with it.

    Cheers,
    Mikko Ohtamaa
    Red Innovation
    Oulu, Finland

    Comment by Mikko Ohtamaa — 14 December 2008 @ 8:47 pm

  5. Hi,

    Also I am not sure whether I have asked this before – is it ok to subscribe your blog to http://planetmobile.us ? Please reply to mikko (at) redinnovation dot com

    Comment by Mikko Ohtamaa — 14 December 2008 @ 8:54 pm

  6. Hi,

    Also I am not sure whether I have asked this before – is it ok to subscribe your blog to http://planetmobile.us ? Please reply to mikko (at) redinnovation dot com

    Comment by Mikko Ohtamaa — 14 December 2008 @ 8:54 pm

  7. Hi Mikko,

    >“The major problem with Symbian is its freak factor. It’s coded differently as anything other out there. Code is fragile, hard-to-understand, hard-to-debug…”

    The forthcoming EUserHL libraries should help out here.

    >“Also symbiansigned.com utter design madness gives headache to third party developers…”

    I'm very interested to hear specific suggestions about improving Symbian Signed.

    >“Also, the future lies in web applications (maybe excluding games), so it does not matter which OS your phone runs as long as it runs a decent web browser…”

    Yes and no. Yes, there will be more and more services delivered through web applications. But that's not the same as saying that the underlying operating system is unimportant.

    >“Our company has been recently working on cross-mobile (S60/iPhone currently) Python development framework…”

    This cross-mobile framework sounds potentially important. How are you handling the fact that the UI systems on these two device families are different? Are you re-coding the UIs between S60 and iPhone?

    // dw2-0

    Comment by David Wood — 14 December 2008 @ 10:49 pm

  8. Hi Mikko,

    >“The major problem with Symbian is its freak factor. It’s coded differently as anything other out there. Code is fragile, hard-to-understand, hard-to-debug…”

    The forthcoming EUserHL libraries should help out here.

    >“Also symbiansigned.com utter design madness gives headache to third party developers…”

    I'm very interested to hear specific suggestions about improving Symbian Signed.

    >“Also, the future lies in web applications (maybe excluding games), so it does not matter which OS your phone runs as long as it runs a decent web browser…”

    Yes and no. Yes, there will be more and more services delivered through web applications. But that's not the same as saying that the underlying operating system is unimportant.

    >“Our company has been recently working on cross-mobile (S60/iPhone currently) Python development framework…”

    This cross-mobile framework sounds potentially important. How are you handling the fact that the UI systems on these two device families are different? Are you re-coding the UIs between S60 and iPhone?

    // dw2-0

    Comment by David Wood — 14 December 2008 @ 10:49 pm

  9. About symbiansigned.com:

    – The user interface is utterly amateurish and has not support for "from zero to certified process". You need to hunt information pieces from many downloads and many files distributed along many sites. This is the *only* web site I need to use with manual – which is 19 pages PDF file. Nowadays it needs *skill* to make a web site that people can't use.

    – symbiansigned.com UI does not follow web usability principles. Form field losts values on submission error, CAPTCHA is not graceful

    – Windows tools (request cert.) UI is broken on > 96 DPI displays

    – You need to use undocumented command line tools which are not generally distributed, behind closed site and unknown to Google

    – You need to create three different user accounts symbiansigned.com, developers.symbian.com, TrustCenter), one with your passport faxed in

    – You need to make a magical post to a magicical forum to get your symbiansigned.com account priviledged for a developer certificate

    etc. etc.

    It looks like no one has ever tested the process from 0 to 100 and reported the results on possible obstacles.

    I once make a blog post of 50 points what was wrong with the process. However, I decided not to publish it, because it was full of F words for a reason.

    Also, giving feedback to forums and even sending email to non-existing webmaster account didn't give any response, so I take that as "where the biggest mobile OS in the world – we don't need to hear you" attitude. I'd really love to make a 4 page document how it *should* be, but I have really lost hope no one would ever read it.

    If you can decode the hints form the noise here are some useful links:

    http://www.simplysymbian.com/2008/03/04/how-to-symbian-sign-applications-using-open-signed/

    Comment by Mikko Ohtamaa — 15 December 2008 @ 5:12 am

  10. About symbiansigned.com:

    – The user interface is utterly amateurish and has not support for "from zero to certified process". You need to hunt information pieces from many downloads and many files distributed along many sites. This is the *only* web site I need to use with manual – which is 19 pages PDF file. Nowadays it needs *skill* to make a web site that people can't use.

    – symbiansigned.com UI does not follow web usability principles. Form field losts values on submission error, CAPTCHA is not graceful

    – Windows tools (request cert.) UI is broken on > 96 DPI displays

    – You need to use undocumented command line tools which are not generally distributed, behind closed site and unknown to Google

    – You need to create three different user accounts symbiansigned.com, developers.symbian.com, TrustCenter), one with your passport faxed in

    – You need to make a magical post to a magicical forum to get your symbiansigned.com account priviledged for a developer certificate

    etc. etc.

    It looks like no one has ever tested the process from 0 to 100 and reported the results on possible obstacles.

    I once make a blog post of 50 points what was wrong with the process. However, I decided not to publish it, because it was full of F words for a reason.

    Also, giving feedback to forums and even sending email to non-existing webmaster account didn't give any response, so I take that as "where the biggest mobile OS in the world – we don't need to hear you" attitude. I'd really love to make a 4 page document how it *should* be, but I have really lost hope no one would ever read it.

    If you can decode the hints form the noise here are some useful links:

    http://www.simplysymbian.com/2008/03/04/how-to-symbian-sign-applications-using-open-signed/

    Comment by Mikko Ohtamaa — 15 December 2008 @ 5:12 am

  11. About mobile Python platform:

    The history has taught a lesson that “the lowest common denominator UI” a.k.a Java ME is a bad option. People used to native Symbian applications generally hate Java ME midlets, since the user interface components don’t work as expected (also think Windows XP vs. Windows Vista). Thus, there is much more point not to make compromises and have separate UIs for different UI platforms if one is aiming to the maximum user experience. Especially if one platform is multitouch based touch screen and the other is traditional keypad/menu driven.

    Comment by Mikko Ohtamaa — 15 December 2008 @ 5:16 am

  12. About mobile Python platform:

    The history has taught a lesson that “the lowest common denominator UI” a.k.a Java ME is a bad option. People used to native Symbian applications generally hate Java ME midlets, since the user interface components don’t work as expected (also think Windows XP vs. Windows Vista). Thus, there is much more point not to make compromises and have separate UIs for different UI platforms if one is aiming to the maximum user experience. Especially if one platform is multitouch based touch screen and the other is traditional keypad/menu driven.

    Comment by Mikko Ohtamaa — 15 December 2008 @ 5:16 am

  13. Hi Mikko,

    Thanks for your comments about Symbian Signed.

    I’ve started to address some of them in a new blog posting this morning, here.

    Actually, that article tries to re-confirm what are the underlying requirements for programs such as Symbian Signed. The second phase is then to consider the implementation.

    // dw2-0

    Comment by David Wood — 15 December 2008 @ 11:47 am

  14. Hi Mikko,

    Thanks for your comments about Symbian Signed.

    I’ve started to address some of them in a new blog posting this morning, here.

    Actually, that article tries to re-confirm what are the underlying requirements for programs such as Symbian Signed. The second phase is then to consider the implementation.

    // dw2-0

    Comment by David Wood — 15 December 2008 @ 11:47 am


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