Symbian has taken a battering over the last year, with critics accusing it of falling behind its rivals. The situation has not been helped by some apparently ambiguous signals from Nokia about the strength of its support.
Symbian’s critics argue it is failing to keep up with the likes of Apple, RIM and more recently Android in terms of functionality and usability, particularly on high-end devices. It is seen by some as being an old fashioned platform without enough applications and support for developers.
It is not a view that cuts much ice with Lee Williams, executive director of the Symbian Foundation, who says: ‘There has been a lot of that kind of talk in the Western press that has done us a big disservice, but Symbian is perfect for high-end devices. We already have high-end handsets on Symbian, such as the Sony Ericsson Vivaz, the Samsung Omnia 8910 and, of course, all the Nokia products.’
He points out that the Nokia N8 is due to launch on Symbian 3 shortly and adds that progress in developing the Symbian 4 OS is on track. ‘The code will be out by the end of the year,’ he says. ‘There will be a public naturalisation stage, where we look at the defects and work out the solutions with the member community into next year.’
But critics argue that by the time Symbian 4 appears on handsets, its rivals, already perceived to be ahead, will have moved on. Even the first Microsoft Windows Mobile 7 devices will be out in Q3 or Q4 2010 and Android is pushing out new versions at a rate of knots.
Williams insists that Symbian is not falling behind its rivals. ‘Between them, Symbian 3 and 4 combine 460-plus new features,’ he says. ‘Volumes are growing globally and the feature list is growing dramatically.’
It’s true that the Western media does tend to forget Symbian and Nokia’s global dominance, focusing instead on the cutting edge high-end developments that attract the most attention. But for all Symbian’s global reach, its dominance is being eroded.
The latest figures for Q2 2010 from analyst Gartner show that Symbian is still the market leader, but its share has dropped to 41.2% from 51% in Q2 2009. Android is the big winner, shooting up from just 1.8% to 17.2%. Nokia’s drop in share was less dramatic, falling from 36.8% to 34.2%.
The Western media’s critical view of Symbian was not helped by some rather contradictory statements made by Nokia earlier in the year about the future of Symbian on its Nseries handsets. The manufacturer said the N8 would be the only Nseries handset on Symbian 3. But later, Anssi Vanjoki, executive VP and general manager of Mobile Solutions, said ‘a Symbian 4 Nseries device is a strong possibility. A very strong possibility’.
That would seem to be a cautious endorsement of Symbian 4 Nseries devices. But for Western commentators, Nokia’s commitment to Symbian also seemed more doubtful following the company’s deal with chip manufacturer Intel to develop the MeeGo OS.
Williams is adamant that Nokia is fully behind both platforms. ‘Symbian will be used for high-end mobiles, but MeeGo will provide a good opportunity to build web pads and more computing orientated devices,’ he insists.
‘But it is not an either or situation. MeeGo is a complimentary platform that also runs Qt (the cross-platform application and UI framework that allows developers to create apps and deploy them across desktop, mobile and embedded operating systems without having to rewrite the source code) and it will help us too.’
Usability is another key issue for Symbian and a source of much grumbling from some users. Williams says that many of the usability problems are down to hardware issues, but people tend to blame the software.
Symbian has set up a user interface council to help overcome these issues. The Foundation invites key players to sit on its UK council and help those who are developing Symbian products.
Previously, the Symbian OS required an additional user interface system, like the S60, but it now includes a UI component. Williams says: ‘The new UI has greatly simplified user interactions and Nokia has taken the same approach; they have had a lot of help from us. We are making usability a priority.’
Symbian is now getting huge contributions from manufacturers and other third parties on things such as near field communications and security.
The Foundation has added a hardware abstraction layer, as Microsoft did, which enabled a plethora of providers to get support.
‘Open source software isn’t just about the high-end, but also a lot of low level technology of the kind that we have not supported before,’ says Williams.
Williams says Symbian is planning to issue two releases per year, along with a consistent stream of updates. However, he admits that the platform needs to do more to market itself and capitalise on the public’s growing awareness of mobile operating systems and what they can do.
Android is a good example of how an OS can enter the public consciousness. To that end, the Foundation has set up a marketing council and is running a campaign to promote Symbian 3.
Has Symbian left it too late to catch up with rival operating systems? Williams clearly thinks not. ‘I think people will be surprised at the products that are coming out on Symbian 3 and 4,’ he says.
What is the Foundation?
Nokia acquired the former Symbian Software Ltd in 2008 and established a new independent non-profit making organisation called the Symbian Foundation. This was officially launched in April 2009 with the aim of publishing the entire Symbian platform source code under the OSI and FSF approved Eclipse Public Licence. The source code was released in February 2010.
• Help third-party developers by providing a shorter path to the consumer.
• Increase marketing of Symbian and establish its identity.
• Demonstrate the Symbian suite of tools by publishing and promoting them on the web.
• Expand Symbian’s influence by diversifying third-party contributors
and signing up new organisations.