Thoughts on mobile development - Symbian, Blackberry, Android, J2ME and iPhone

The emperors new clothes

By Aaron Davidson, in , posted: 25-Jan-2010 15:02

Symbian is a rock solid super capable operating system.  From earlier posts you'll have gathered that we like it and do quite a bit of development for it.  Symbian OS still powers the majority of the worlds smartphones but, relative to the user experience offered by the iPhone and Android devices, it has been let down by its tired clunky UI.

That the Symbian UI needs a huge overhaul is not news and not just our opinion - Nokia has itself said as much.  The shortcomings of the Symbian UI became immediately apparent one night nearly 2 1/2 years ago when the first iPhone was launched.  The iPhone UI of course is gorgeous and is a big part of why the iPhone has gone from strength to strength during that time.

The Symbian UI today is pretty much the same as it was when the iPhone launched.  Sure there's been some tweaking around the edges and Nokia bolted a touch UI onto it, but it is still basically the same tired clunky old UI.  So what on earth have Nokia been doing for the last 2 1/2 years?!  If it was so obvious the Symbian UI needed fixing why hasn't it been?

With the benefit of hindsight and in the absence of an explicit explanation from Nokia, here's my view.  Around the time Apple launched its iPhone Nokia already had years of smartphone dominance under its belt.  Nokia no doubt immediately appreciated the superiority of the iPhone UI and understood that it needed to respond however it also appreciated another emerging trend that it would need to respond to: open source operating systems.

You would think that an organisation of Nokia's scale could take on both of these issues simultaneously.  It would seem not however.  Instead Nokia looks to have pondered its options and at last reached a decision a full year after Apple launched the iPhone.  Nokia announced in June 2008 that it had agreed to purchase all of the outstanding shares in Symbian and then open source the Symbian OS.  This remarkable announcement set in motion a course of work that would essentially consume Nokia's Symbian development resources for a couple of years during which all proprietary elements of the Symbian source code needed to be expunged, open source infrastructure set up etc.

Nokia made a call that it could deal with the UI issue later but that it needed to deal with the open source issue immediately.  Nokia's choice has lead to years of delay in responding to the competitive threat posed by Apple and now Android.  Consumers actually care how easy to use and nice looking their phone UI is and whether Nokia could actually afford to put off dealing with the UI issue only time will tell.

Now at last it appears that there may be some momentum building to address this long-standing UI deficit.  Last December Nokia CEO, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, promised:

"In 2010, we will drive user experience improvements, and the progress we make will take the Symbian user interface to a new level. As an operating system, Symbian has reach and flexibility like no other platform, and we have measures in place to push smartphones down to new price points globally, while growing margins. I see great opportunity for Nokia to capture new growth in our industry, by creating what we expect to be the world's biggest platform for services on the mobile."

If you think like me then you probably wondered at the time, "Why is Nokia making announcements about the future of the Symbian OS?  Shouldn't the Symbian Foundation itself be making such announcements?".  While Nokia did not clarify this in its December 2009 announcement what is actually happening is that Nokia, as a contributing member of the Symbian Foundation, will make a proposal to the Symbian Foundation in relation to a new Symbian UI.  If that proposal is accepted then the proposed work will be integrated into the Symbian^4 workflow.

Earlier this month Nokia's December announcement crystallised in a follow-up announcement that Nokia had delivered its proposal for a revised Symbian UI to the Symbian Foundation for consideration.  The proposal is available here.

So the wheels are in motion but they grind ever so slowly.  Notwithstanding Mr Kallasuvo's announcement last year that we would see the fruits of Nokia's UI work this year, that is not backed up by Symbian's own release plan.  If we're going to have to wait until Symbian^4 for any sort of material UI improvement then we won't actually see devices in the marketplaces until late 2011.  That's right, late 2011 - potentially 4 1/2 years since Apple showed the world what the next evolution in the mobile UI would look like.  With Symbian only now beginning to address the issue of its weak UI the question that has to be asked, even if it achieves all that it hopes with Symbian^4, what will happen in the marketplace between now and then that it won't be reacting too.  By 2011 the emperors new clothes may be no more than hand me downs.

Here's some pics of the new UI design proposed by Nokia:

Proposed Symbian UI homescreen   Proposed Symbian UI photogralleryProposed Symbian UI videoplayer

Other related posts:
Don’t ignore regionality when selecting target mobile OS
Windows Phone 7 looking good. Demo looking better.
Nokia Developer Day, Sydney 2 March 2010

Comment by freitasm, on 25-Jan-2010 18:55

I think they could seriously improve the experience by simply stop using that ugly font...

Comment by Fraktul, on 26-Jan-2010 00:37

"Symbian OS still powers the majority of the worlds smartphones"

Not according to Gartner (Nov 200)

Below are smartphone market share numbers from Q3 2008, and then Q3 2009, with the % change in parenthesis afterwards:

* Android – 0% to 3.9%
* BlackBerry OS – 16% to 20.8%
* iPhone – 12.9% to 17.1%
* Symbian – 49.7% to 44.6%
* WebOS – 0% to 1.1%
* Windows Mobile – 11% to 7.9%

Author's note by ald, on 27-Jan-2010 14:01

Good point Fraktul, although I think you'll find that your numbers refer only to devices shipped during the relevant reporting periods referred to.  Symbian devices have been shipping for many years and in terms of installed base, do comprise the majority of smartphones used in the market today.

Author's note by ald, on 8-Feb-2010 10:44

Heaven's above.  Someone at Nokia read my blog, agrees with me wholeheartedly and decided to do something about it!  Yes that's right, it would seem that this blog lit a fire under someone at Nokia , which has announced that it is skipping Symbian ^2 entirely and bringing Symbian^3 and Symbian ^4 forward by 12 odd months.

So Symbian^3 devices should be available later this year with an outside chance of QT-based Symbian^4 based devices available at the end of this year/start of next.  Give them a few months wiggle room though!

Two riders:

1.  No, I don't actually believe that anyone at Nokia actually read my blog and acted on it, mores the pity!

2.  How is it that Nokia is able to make announcements about the timetable for the Symbian OS?  It's all very well for Nokia to announce that it personally is skipping an OS version but the actual release schedule is not up to Nokia, or at least its not supposed to be?!

Author's note by ald, on 8-Feb-2010 11:17

And in further news, the Symbian Foundation has announced that it is releasing the Symbian^3 source code 4 months early.

Two things to take away from this:

1.  It is not without some basis then that Nokia has promised a Symbian^4 device to us late this year/early next; and

2.  This is clear evidence that I should spend less time working and more time surfing the web reading news as this news broke a few days ago.  I'll be sure to raise this with my colleagues at our next management meeting!

ald's profile

Aaron Davidson
New Zealand

Co-founder and CEO of SimWorks - New Zealands leading developer of mobile applications.

SimWorks Anti-Virus protects over 1.5 million mobile phones around the world everyday.

SimWorks phone backup enables mobile operators to protect their subscribers mobile phone contacts and provide their subscribers with unique and compelling new ARPU boosting services.

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