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  • Writer's pictureSlashData Team

Symbian’s open source challenge

[Will Symbian learn from the iPhone as it transitions to open source? Guest blogger Roger Nolan looks at the challenges iPhone presents to Nokia and its OS strategy.]

Symbian’s EVP of Research, David Wood, posted a well-written response to TechCrunch’s rather ill-founded claims about iPhone and Symbian’s relative market shares. Nonetheless iPhone sales have been surprisingly rapid. The queue to buy iPhones outside the San Francisco Apple Store was something any retailer would dream of, and certainly nothing the mobile phone industry has ever seen.

So what is it about the iPhone that caused this frenzy? Why is the iPhone selling in the US when Symbian handsets do not? Why is the iPhone popular in US whilst it seems to have trouble in other markets?

To understand this, I think you need to understand exactly what Apple have built and what their customers want.

Comparing iPhone to Symbian OS is a little like comparing apples and oranges – or perhaps an apple tree to an apple pie sitting in the baker’s store. Symbian is an operating system without a UI built into many many handsets where iPhone is a single device and set of services. Still we can look at the underlying technologies of iPhone. Many of the initial reviews were quick to point out that iPhone didn’t support MMS – something Apple didn’t even bother fixing in the recent major upgrade to the software. This pattern repeats itself in nearly all areas. Consider that iPhone: – does not have MMS – only supports a limited set of multimedia formats – does not have a forward facing camera – initially shipped without 3G support – does not have a unified inbox – support for camera and Bluetooth is at best utilitarian – does not have a unified inbox – shipped without multi-addressing of SMS

The only areas where iPhone software excels are the interface. The use of transparency and animation, the physical size of the screen and UIKit, the fluid multi-touch user interface. iPhone is also backed up with a first class range of services requiring little or no set up before they are used – iTunes, the App Store and (less) mobileMe.

This speaks volumes about how Apple approach their product design and underlines the difference between Apple and Symbian/Nokia. Nokia are fundamentally driven by technology and led by engineers. They drive their products from a list of standards. This approach in turn drives the rest of the handset industry – including Symbian. Apple on the other hand are driven by design and ease of use.

When I see the iPhone I’m reminded of another product that sells surprisingly well in the US; the Sony DCR-DVD108 and it’s predecessors. The DCR-DVD108 is a camcorder that records directly to DVD – unlike the iPhone it is pretty ugly. Like the iPhone it is very easy to use – most of the time. You shoot your video and pop the resulting DVD straight into your DVD player; no tape adapter, no editing on a desktop, just one step. So the iPhone and the DCR-DVD108 both focus on ease of use. They make what 80% of the population want to do quick and easy but abandon the more advanced remainder. For the DCR-DVD108 that means no editing, audio overdubs, colour-correction or title sequences. For the iPhone, no MMS, video conferencing or Bluetooth headphones.

The key here is that US, mass market consumers value convenience and ease of use over pretty-much anything else. Conversely, Japanese consumers are happy to work their way through a poor UI to get at the esoteric functionality they just have to have. I believe that in-general consumers the world over are becoming more like US consumers – and that the amount of functionality in a modern smart-phone increases this tendency.

Symbian’s advantage is also it’s problem On paper, Symbian OS is much better than the middle-ware and OS of the iPhone. The trouble is that on paper is one thing – in the handset, you just can’t access all that functionality. I assert that the problem is Series 60. It’s not to say that Nokia don’t understand interface design – they went to great efforts to unify the core of their hardware designs and to have S60 software support this. Moving to a Series 60 phone from a Series 40 phone is relatively easy. It is not absolutely easy though. Worse, it’s not easy to find and use all the functionality you paid your N Series tax for. The huge depth of technology in Symbian OS is buried in an ageing and inadequate UI.

It’s a shame because Symbian OS could make a much better iPhone that OS X does. It performs better, has better power management and a robust security model. A Symbian OS iPhone would not have to implement the ridiculous “no background apps” rule nor would Apple have to vet every app quite so closely.

The irony of this is that Psion, the company which developed the foundations for Symbian OS, had enormous focus on UI. David [Wood, EVP Research] himself used to quote Pareto’s 80/20 rule with respect to UI design and functionality – do the 20% of the functionality that 80% of the population want (but spend 100% of the time on it). I.e. focus on making the common uses elegant and easy to use at the expense of more esoteric functionality. “Delightful” was a word you used to hear around Psion when describing what their customers should feel.

Can Maemo show the way? I’d like to say that Maemo is different. Nokia made a clean start and built a new software stack. Sadly Maemo is also driven from a technology soapbox. This time, it’s not a features arms race, it’s open-source-or-die. The Maemo team did not sit down and say “Let’s build a great UI for an internet tablet” they sat down and said “What can we do with open source” – open source is the religion, not ease of use and making great devices that are delightful to use.

As Symbian becomes the Symbian foundation and transitions to an open source model, I hope that the open source community will take some of the burden of implementing every last codec and piece of middle-ware and the Symbian foundation can focus on UIs and ease of use. Unfortunately, I fear that they will be overcome following Maemo’s open-source religion.

The Opportunity Nokia are obviously aware of this challenge – they have produced a touch device bearing an uncanny likeness to their new rival and touting an advanced touch UI. In reality, I do not have great hopes for “Touch Series 60”. Or rather, no matter how good this UI is, I do not believe that Nokia will have strong enough product management discipline to leave any of the more esoteric Symbian OS functionality out – or even leave it in but without a UI so that a third party developer can expose it for the 20% who want it.

I’d like to say that there is an opportunity for a new entrant to take the initiative and develop a real competitor to UIKit and a “delightful” set of applications on top of Symbian. Something that uses the great foundations Symbian have built to make phones that are actually better that iPhone. Unfortunately, I doubt this will happen – if anyone fancies a try though, I’d be glad to help out…

– Roger

[Roger has been using phones nearly all his life and making them for nearly on third of it. He has worked at Psion, Symbian, Texas Instruments and Sonopia. He can be contacted on rog at hatbat dot net]

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