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:
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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%