dw2

25 October 2008

"Symbian too old" – a mountain worth climbing

Filed under: Cringely, developer experience, E71, smartphones — David Wood @ 2:03 pm

In case I had forgotten how little mindshare Symbian has in many parts of North America, the recent Robert X. Cringely piece “Why Windows Mobile will die” contained yet another stark reminder.

As usual with Cringely, the piece mixes potential insight with a lot of conjecture and then some fancy. Most of the article discusses Windows Mobile, iPhone, and Android. But it squeezes in a dismissive paragraph about Symbian:

…donning flameproof clothing: Symbian is simply too old. The OS is getting slower and slower with each release. The GUIs are getting uglier and are not user-friendly. The development environment is particularly bad, which wouldn’t hurt if there weren’t others that are so much better. Symbian C++, for example, is not a standard C++. There is little momentum in the Symbian developer community, maybe because coding for Symbian is a pain. Yes, there are way more Symbian phones in circulation, but those phones will be gone 18 months from now, probably replaced by phones with a different OS. Lately, Symbian’s success has been primarily based on the high quality of Nokia hardware, on the loyalty of NTT DoCoMo, and now on the lure of being recently made open source and therefore free. But if open source developers don’t flock now to Symbian (they aren’t as far as I can see — at least not yet) then the OS is doomed.

And if that weren’t a sufficiently strong reminder of Symbian’s lack of mindshare, I found scant encouragement in the 65 comments posted (so far) to Cringely’s piece.

Allow me a few moments to respond to individual points in this paragraph, before I return to the bigger picture.

“Symbian is simply too old” – but it has been undergoing a constant internal renewal, with parts of the architecture and code being refactored and replaced with each new point release. Just a few examples: we introduced a new kernel in v8.1b, a new security architecture in v9.0, new database (SQL) architecture in v9.3, new Bluetooth in v9.4, substantially revised graphics architecture and networking architecture in v9.5, and so forth.

“The OS is getting slower and slower with each release” – on the contrary, many parts of the operating system are humming much quicker in the newer releases, as a result of a specific and pervasive focus on performance across the whole system. Deliverables include speed ups due to smart incorporation of demand paging, file system caching, data scalability improvements, and wider adoption of separation of activity into three planes (data plane, control plane, and management plane).

“The GUIs are getting uglier and are not user-friendly” – but the UI system is increasingly flexible, which allows customers to experiment with many different solutions (whilst retaining API compatibility). New developments such as the S60 Fifth Edition touch interface, and the recently announced support for Qt on Symbian OS, take things further in the user-friendly direction.

“The development environment is particularly bad” – but documentation and tools for Symbian OS have markedly improved over the last two years.

“Symbian C++, for example, is not a standard C++” – but watch out for our forthcoming annoucements about EUserHL that go a long way to address this particular gripe.

“There is little momentum in the Symbian developer community” – but that’s not the impression given by the media reports from people who attended the Symbian Smartphone Show last week.

“Yes, there are way more Symbian phones in circulation, but those phones will be gone 18 months from now, probably replaced by phones with a different OS” – but I beg to differ, based on my knowledge of development projects underway at phone manufacturers across the world. For just one example, consider the recent remarks from Li Jilin, Huawei Communications Vice President (note: Huawei has previously not been a user of Symbian OS):

“Huawei is excited by the plans for the Symbian Foundation. We look forward to participating in the work of the Symbian Foundation and using the foundation’s platform to deliver a portfolio of devices for mobile network operators around the world. We believe that the Symbian Foundation ecosystem will enable innovation which will benefit users and drive increased customer satisfaction.”

“If open source developers don’t flock now to Symbian (they aren’t as far as I can see — at least not yet) then the OS is doomed” – but this is far too impatient. It’s too early to make this judgement. You can’t expect the open source developers to flock to us before more plans are published for the roadmap to put our source code into open source.

As for the bigger picture: despite the above individual points of fact, I don’t expect significant changes in mindset (except among the far-sighted) until there are more Symbian devices in the hands of North Americans.

It was the amazing array of devices at the partner showcase stands at the Smartphone Show last week that caused the biggest buzz of all – bigger than the announcements from the keynote hall next door. Thankfully, AT&T have publicly mentioned their “plan to introduce more Symbian phones“. North American users shouldn’t have too long to wait. And there are encouraging signs of independently-minded North American writers actually (shock horror) liking the latest Symbian phones. For example, the renowned software essayist Joel Spolsky called the Nokia E71 “the best phone I’ve ever had – I’m loving it“.

In the meantime, the Symbian Foundation has a big mountain to climb, in public perception. But it’s a mountain well worth climbing!

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