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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