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

Time for Symbian device vendors to ante up?

By Aaron Davidson, in , posted: 1-Mar-2010 10:50

While the Symbian Foundation may still be working away on Symbian^3 (its not due for completion until the end of this month) it has released a video showcasing the look and feel of the new OS.  The video is really polished, the UI it showcases looks nice.

Its just a video of course so whether the reality matches this only time will tell.  The video for the most part showcases the multiple home screen and gesture support of the UI.  The multiple home screens look clean with the ability to organise and manage widgets.  Gestures (swipe, pinch etc) are supported throughout the UI.  The video claims that enhanced multitasking and graphics support will make the OS faster and feel more responsive, addressing another long time complaint of users of the Symbian UI.

After viewing the video many commentators have complained that aspects of the Symbian^3 UI appear to be derivative of other platforms.  Like being derivative is a big problem.  I don't claim that my car is derivative just because it has a steering wheel for interacting with it just like every other car.  So when someone comes up with a compelling paradigm for interacting with a device I would expect all other vendors implement it.  Over time you would naturally expect similar devices to converge on certain core hardware/software useability and functionality paradigms and then differentiate themselves around the edges.  Hence we all interact with our cars using the steering wheel but car manufacturers still manage to differentiate themselves.

The complete list of features (borrowed from this Symbian Foundation press release) announced so far are:
  • The Homescreen takes a big step forward with support for multiple pages of widgets and a simple flick gesture to move between them. The widget manager makes discovery and download of new widgets simple and support for multiple instances of a native widget means that consumers can monitor multiple weather forecasts, news feeds, social networking accounts or multiple email accounts simultaneously through a common interface.
  • Usability enhancements across the user interface include the adoption of a direct “single tap” interaction model, making it much easier to complete common tasks on a device. Multi-touch support for gestures such as “pinch-to-zoom” forms the basis of a gesture framework that can be extended and leveraged by the developer community.
  • One-click connectivity for all applications greatly simplifies the process of connecting to the Internet, without interrupting the user. New global settings allow the user to configure platform-wide behaviour, for example ensuring the device automatically switches from cellular to WLAN when a free WLAN network is available.
  • More efficient memory management due to Writeable Data Paging allows more applications to run in parallel for a faster, more complete and efficient multi-tasking experience, especially on mid-range hardware.
  • A new 2D and 3D graphics architecture takes full advantage of the hardware acceleration available to deliver a faster and more responsive user interface. Users, developers and device creators will all benefit greatly from the visual enhancements and smooth transitions that will significantly improve the look-and-feel of their applications and services. Combined with industry-standard OpenGL ES, the new architecture also provides a great platform for high performance games – all without slowing the phone down.
  • HDMI support enables users to plug their phone into a TV and watch a high-definition movie at 1080p quality without a Blu-ray player.
  • Music store integration embedded within the radio enables users to identify a song and learn more about it. The addition of a “buy now” button, which links with the user’s chosen music store, makes purchasing easy.
  • The industry-leading networking architecture, ready for 4G networks, provides next-generation Internet experiences on today’s devices. Consumers will benefit from the architecture's ability to seamlessly balance each individual application’s needs regarding factors such as bandwidth, latency and jitter. This improves the consumer’s experience of network-dependent applications and Internet services like VoIP and media content streaming.
Symbian says that the first Symbian^3 devices will ship in Q3.  Symbian has been doing a good job of meeting or beating its targets lately and so I'd be inclined to believe them at this stage.  Although once the OS leaves their labs at the end of this month how long it takes to get devices onto shelves will be up to the individual device vendors so even if the Q3 date is not met I don't think it would be reasonable to blame Symbian for that!

Aside from a crumby UI one of the long standing problems with Symbian has been the low hardware specifications used by the device vendors.  These are superphones folks, and they need super processes.  When you're selling something for top dollar you can't scrimp on the processor.  You can talk all you want about a strategy of choosing the n-1 generation of processor for its smaller size and better power efficiency but if that results in a sluggish user experience on the device itself then it just isn't worth it.  Don't know what I'm talking about?  The iPhone 3GS ships with a Samsung S5PC100 ARM Cortex-A8[9] 833 MHz processor underclocked to 600 MHz.  The Google Nexus One ships with a 1 GHz Qualcomm QSD 8250 Snapdragon ARM processor.  Nokia's N97 ships with a 434 MHz ARM11 processor.  So even underclocked the iPhone has a processor around 50% faster than then N97 while the Nexus One has more than double.  Don't get me wrong, I understand that its not just about mhz and that other factors come into play in terms of system responsiveness.  But the fact remain that competing platforms are throwing a lot more horsepower at these devices and Symbian is renowned for being sluggish.  So maybe its time for Symbian device vendors to ante up as well.

Other related posts:
Nokia N8 – the phone to bring me back

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Aaron Davidson
New Zealand

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

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