lunes, 25 de octubre de 2010
Symbian OS Is Broken. Can It Be Fixed?
Quick, name the most popular smartphone operating system in the world: It isn’t Android, iPhone or the BlackBerry OS. Say hello to Symbian, an open source mobile OS that’s nearly a decade old. More than 300 million devices worldwide run Symbian. Some 41 percent of smartphones have Symbian on them.
Despite its popularity, Symbian is broken. The operating system’s user interface lacks the snazziness of its rivals, its touchscreen capabilities feel grafted on. It is slow, and developing apps for Symbian is hard.
With younger, prettier competitors in the market, Symbian seems like an aging actress that should have already stepped out of the spotlight.
Symbian also seems to be losing corporate support. Earlier this week, Lee Williams, CEO of the Symbian Foundation resigned for “personal reasons.” Williams, an enthusiastic champion of Symbian and a vocal critic of Google’s Android OS, often did media rounds touting Symbian.
Williams’ exit came on the heels of handset makers Sony Ericsson and Samsung declaring they will no longer manufacture devices running the operating system. With their departures, the only companies left on board with Symbian are Sharp and ZTE (not exactly handset trendsetters), plus Nokia, the one company that truly relies on the OS and with which its fortunes are intricately connected.
Sure, it’s the dominant OS worldwide, but with the rise of smartphones, Symbian hardly seems positioned for the future.
So can Symbian be fixed? Yes, say developers and analysts.
“It’s too early to abandon Symbian,” Nick Jones, an analyst with Gartner Research wrote on his blog last month. “It’s sick, but it’s far from dead; it’s still out-shipping other mobile OSes by a huge margin.”
Freddie Gjertsen, head of product development for Touchnote, an app that is available across Android, iPhone and Symbian, agrees.
“It’s an OS that has had 12 years of continuous development, many thousand of hours of bug testing and fixing. There’s a stability and robustness there that should count for something,” he says. “If Nokia focuses on it, I don’t see why Symbian can’t be fixed.”
Nokia executives says despite the discontent around Symbian, they aren’t willing to give up on the OS. Symbian could put smartphones within the reach of millions of users who can’t pay more than $100 for an unsubsidized device, they say.
To get there, though, Nokia will have to fix four major things: Symbian’s user interface, developer support, app-development environment and the leadership vacuum for the platform.
“How difficult is to fix Symbian? Not so much,” says Rich Green, CTO of Nokia. “You will see some major changes in the forthcoming release of Symbian.”
One of those changes will be to release a version of the OS more often than Symbian’s current schedule of about every 18 months. “That will improve the usability of the OS and keep up with the trend,” says Green.
As for developers, they have the siren call of a global market that can be difficult to resist.
“We can give developers the whole world,” he says. “When you think about the reach Nokia has with Symbian, that is untouched by any other vendor.”
Getting a better UI
Remember older smartphones such as HTC’s Sidekick? They had resistive touchscreens and confusing menus that were difficult to use. The iPhone raised the bar for both hardware and user experience. It ushered in an interface that was clean, driven by icons rather than text-based menus and easy to navigate.
In 2008, when Google launched Android on the HTC G1, it offered a similar experience. Since then, even Microsoft has reinvented its mobile OS to have a UI with some pizzazz.
Not so with Symbian.
“There’s only one problem with Symbian and that is the user interface,” says Jan Ole Suhr, a Berlin, Germany, app developer who has worked on the Symbian platform since 2003.
“From a technical point of view, it is still the best OS: It consumes very little power, is robust and has been there since 2002 running on millions of phones,” he says. But, yes, the UI is really lacking.”
Suhr says it won’t take much to fix the UI but is puzzled that Nokia hasn’t done it so far.
“A change to the UI is not so hard,” he says. “The UI is just the presentation layer of the OS. An OS is far more complex. With a little effort, they can turn around the Symbian ship in no time.”
Nokia executives defend the company’s efforts. Symbian^3 tries to bring a fresh look to the mobile phone UI and future versions of the UI will be better, says Kai Öistämö.
“Android and iOS could start from a blank sheet of paper,” says Öistämö. “But Symbian has to carry the past so it has unfortunately created a bit of slowness in the UI experience.”
Another way to to help developers create better looking apps for the OS is to adopt Qt, an app and UI framework that can work across platforms, says Nokia. Nokia announced Thursday that it’s putting its energies into Qt as the sole app-development platform.
A better development environment
Thinking of developing an iPhone or an Android app? Download the Software Developers Kit (SDK), register, pop open Xcode (for iPhone) or Eclipse (for Android), and you can get started. But if you want to create an app for Symbian, there are just too many choices, developers say. You can develop in native Symbian (Symbian C++), some Java variants, .Net integrated and Qt.
“Over the years, we have had a variety of app platforms that have been prevalent on Symbian,” admits Green.
Qt, which Nokia hopes to promote now, could help change that.
Green explains that Qt is really a term that applies to two things. One is the Qt platform and library that have been extremely successful in the desktop world and allow developers to create cool apps. The second is QML, or Qt Quick, that UI designers can use to rapidly develop attractive UIs.
Qt will also make it easy to create apps that will work across all past and future Nokia devices, including those that will run MeeGo, the new OS that Nokia is developing along with Intel for high-end smartphones.
That’s a big change, says Green. Nokia has had so many versions of the Symbian and development environments that apps created for one set of devices often don’t work on another. It’s a fragmentation problem — similar to what Android OS has seen.
“With Qt we have overhauled our strategy,” says Green. “It’s a big step for hardware and software coherence.”
Talk like that is enough to get developers like Suhr excited. “This is really important, most of the developer community has been waiting for this,” he says. “If Nokia is going to use Qt, the development of SDK and platform is going to be quicker and easier.”
Making it easier to create Symbian apps
But just how hard is it to develop an app for Symbian compared to the iPhone or Android? Even Symbian fans don’t want to sugar-coat the truth. It’s tough, its messy and it’s hard work.
When Touchnote, a London-based app developer whose app turns consumer photos into postcards, set out to create an app for Symbian it turned out to be a long road.
“For us to build a plug-in that connects the camera to the gallery of photos in the application took about four to five weeks of work,” says Gjertsen, who has worked for nearly five years with the Symbian Foundation and the company. “In Android, it took us five minutes. It was a feature built into the OS and we had to just turn it on.” Touchnote is also available on the iPhone.
Raam Thakrar founder of Touchnote says there’s another problem. Finding young developers enthusiastic about Symbian isn’t easy.
“Kids who are coming out of college or have two to five years experience — not many of them are getting into Symbian,” he says. “It makes it much more difficult to build things in Symbian.”
Find developer love in the United States
Mobile apps were around long before Apple introduced the app store. But it is the iPhone app store that has made apps a big driver for smartphones. Consumers now buy smartphones for the apps they can download — which has forced all major smartphone operating systems such as Android and BlackBerry to introduce their own app stores.
Walk into most tech meets in Silicon Valley and there are likely to be iPhone or Android developers lounging about. But try finding a Symbian developer in the crowd — it’s almost impossible. Much of the support for Symbian comes from international developers. That’s natural, considering a majority of Nokia phones are sold outside the United States.
But at a time when the mobile-app environment is being driven out of the United States, the big question is can Symbian move forward without U.S. developer enthusiasm?
“Symbian is very popular all around the world except U.S.,” says Suhr. “Maybe it won’t hurt them to have not enough support in the U.S. but we don’t know.”
Grab control of Symbian
With Sony Ericsson and Samsung bowing out, Symbian, which was always synonymous with Nokia, is now even more closely tied to Nokia.
But Nokia’s history with Symbian has been checkered. Nokia acquired Symbian in 2008 and spun it off as an independent foundation. The idea was to promote Symbian as not just a Nokia platform but an open source system that other handset makers could use. Nokia and Symbian fans hoped this would make the OS more popular. But that hasn’t happened. And now with Samsung and Sony Ericsson dropping support for Symbian, Nokia seems to be the only major handset maker backing the platform.
Developers say Nokia now needs to lead development of Symbian if the OS has to succeed, much like what Google has done with Android.
Nokia needs to scrap the Symbian foundation and bring the OS home, says Gartner’s Jones. The Symbian open source experiment has failed, he declares.
“It which would eliminate time-wasting Foundation activities like release councils, architecture councils, user interface councils,” says Jones on his blog. “What Symbian needs is agility and vision, not committees, and if Symbian is fixable it will be fixed a lot faster under a single leader. Great user interfaces aren’t developed by committees.”
To fix Symbian, Nokia needs to move fast, he says. “Symbian 4 needs to be nothing less than outstanding, if it’s not then Nokia may have to face a difficult decision about whether to abandon Symbian entirely and rebuild Ovi in a new form,” he says.
But former Symbian loyalists such as Gjersten hope it won’t come to that.
“If Nokia took Symbian back in-house, assuming control and leadership, and used Qt to create a good UI, Symbian would be a very different entity from what it is today,” he says.