This post is a result of a multitude of factors. Reading different forums where people write off Symbian for other OS’s such as the ones on Blackberrys’ and the iPhone, coupled with vents from a few bloggers but most importantly the attitude of the mainstream media – the TV. This is not being written because I am a Symbian fanboy and I hate to see people say a word against it, but because some of the criticism is plain unfair and off the mark.
What triggered this post was a preview that I saw for an upcoming N97 preview on NDTV (a widely watched channel in India) where the N97 was being discussed and one weakness of the device that was point out was the fact that it ran Symbian. The OS was being labeled as a weakness. The television influences a lot of people, specially those who are not ‘savvy’ enough to look up things for themselves, such statements/questions leave quite a lasting impact on the viewer’s mind. Lets try and see where does Symbian stand.
A few year’s back, Symbian was perhaps the only true smartphone OS complete with 3rd party applications and multitasking. The Nokia 7650 for me was a groundbreaker, something that completely changed the way I looked at mobile phones. Blackberry wasn’t a fad, and Apple was probably just thinking about an iPod phone and with Nokia’s full support Symbian ruled the roost. With time equation has changed and both RIM and Apple’s offerings have caught on, still not in terms of sales, but recognition. The debate in the geek circles still is whether the iPhone is an smartphone or not but that hardly matters because the sales figures are making that question meaningless.
Today there is a growing sentiment that Symbian is old and outdated, that despite the S60 5th Edition update that brought touch into S60, it still feels the same old OS. Another argument that is made against it is that it is not as intuitive and is difficult to use as compared to its competition that is coming from Android, BB and OS X.
But how different is Symbian actually from say OS X that runs the iPhone? You hit the menu key on a S60 device and you are presented with a grid that lists your applications, it even has folders if you want to file some of the junk away. On an iPhone, pressing its solitary button also brings up the grid of applications. Yes, there is a lot more eye candy there, but my question is that since when does eye candy amount to ease of use?
Yes the settings on some devices are really burried inside, but that isn’t really the OS’s fault – it depends on the manufacturer. Nokia seems to have learnt a lesson there and the menu on the N97 and 5800 is much more organised and finding something isn’t that hard. Moreover, the fact that the layout hasn’t changed much for the last few years works as an advantage for the experienced users.
If we talk about functionality Symbian/S60 has been right up there, from copy/paste right to flash in the web browser. Yes, its not perfect, but its at least there. Coming back to the eye candy, or rather the lack of it. Is it such a big deal? All I want in my handset is for it to be snappy and the Nokia E71 running S60 3rd Edition FP1 proved that S60 can be blazing fast.
Most of you must be aware that Symbian has now become open source and the guys at the spanking new Symbian.Org are working very hard to take it in the right direction. The interface/UI is due for a major revamp in 2010 with the QT layer and that should take care of the eye candy aspect as well.
As far as the problem with Symbian signed goes, the Symbian Foundation is looking at really simplify the signing process for applications and the costs involved; so that’s a huge positive as well. With Symbian going open source, other manufacturers apart from Nokia are likely to take further interest in the OS. Samsung already has a high end device (i8910 HD) that runs S60 5th Edition, Sony Ericsson’s Satio is extremely high end and will be one of the first devices to run the new Symbian Foundation OS.
If the Ovi Store gains traction, which it should if Nokia makes it possible for individual/hobby developers to publish, the scene for developers could become much more enticing. As it is there are more smartphones running on Symbian than any other mobile OS, so the potential is huge.
Most OS’s do certain things very well, for example BlackBerry for email but when it comes to multimedia there isn’t much. The iPhone’s OS X is weak in certain basic things e.g. Bluetooth transfers, deleting a song from the phone itself and it will continue to have such limitations because Apple wants them to say. Android is yet to prove itself, but there’s no doubt it will remain a strong contender. Symbian on the other hand is a very mature OS, with virtually no small niggles and it is open as well – meaning that it can only get better.
However, everything said and done, how Symbian shapes up will largely depend on what direction Nokia takes. It holds the largest share in the smartphone market and all of its high-mid end devices run Symbian. If it waivers too much in favour of Maemo, then developers and people could loose confidence in Symbian as Nokia till date still remains the only major player whole heartedly backing the OS.
These is a lot of potential in Symbian and I wouldn’t coun’t it out just yet. I also wouldn’t call it a phone’s weakness.
Note: I have used the words Symbian and S60 interchangebly in some instances. After this month S60 would cease to exist, there will only be Symbian.