Symbian: Moving Towards Openess
I’ve been going to Symbian smartphone shows now since the Developer Expo in 2000 in the conference hall of the Hilton London Metropole, so I have a good perspective on how Symbian has evolved since then.
The first Symbian Exchange & Exposition a couple of months ago confirmed that Symbian is an organization in transition. You knew that, right?
More importantly, it revealed the direction and pace of that transition. So, what’s coming, and is it good or bad for customers and partners? Let’s start big picture and drill down.
Symbian is transitioning from a closed club model to an open model. Why say “closed club” rather than “proprietary”? Symbian has always had multiple stakeholders, all of whom exerted influence on the direction of the product. Now the range of stakeholders has dramatically increased.
This is very different to the Apple, Microsoft, RIM, or even Google model, where one organization “reads” the market and drives the product in the direction they believe it should go. Don’t be confused by Android’s open source status – Google is the indisputable lead in that project and open source is an after-the-fact reality. (A simple way to put it is “Google writes it, everyone reads it; Symbian allows everyone to write and read.”)
This transition from closed to open is occurring at many levels, and the expo introduced several, such as:
- The Ideas process
- The Horizon application publishing framework
- The Beagle Board and OMAP Zoom debug hardware.
These introductions help end users because the Symbian Foundation is now:
- Open to new ideas via an open, rapid, practical requirements elicitation process in ideas.symbian.org
- Open to all applications and app stores via horizon.symbian.org
- Open to all ISVs (the guys that make the “smart” in smartphone) via open/cheap source combined with cheap debug hardware via beagleboard.org and omapzoom.org
Let’s look at each of these points and see how they help end users of Symbian phones.
The Ideas process introduces a completely open requirements elicitation process, allowing Symbian to hear directly from the end user and not just their closed club of traditional customers (device manufacturers and operators). This speeds improvement of the UI and features of your smartphone.
This is basically an open requirements elicitation process. In the old Symbian this process existed but was open only to Symbian’s customers (i.e. the device manufacturers and some operators). Users had to rely on device manufacturers and operators to represent the user’s interests. The surprise success of the iPhone showed how poorly they were doing that! So the ideas process is an exciting and genuinely useful innovation that is unique in the marketplace.
The Horizon application publishing framework reduces barriers to market for ISVs and supports a wide range of app stores (allowing improved service and specialization) while maintaining a single point of distribution for the ISVs. This encourages a healthy diversity of third party applications for your smartphone.
- it allows the application to be sold via any shop (including the vendor’s own), allowing powerful channels to market (thus better service)
- it provides testing and signing at no cost to the vendor, removing a barrier to entry and improving quality and security
- it provides a pool of quality applications for app shops to draw from, allowing operators and handset vendors to provide their own app shops with less duplication of effort (thus lower prices for everyone)
- it makes no judgement on the commercial conflicts the application may cause, thus avoiding the blocking of such applications as is prevalent in Apple’s App Store
Horizon shows that Symbian is finally starting to take third party application vendors seriously. We probably have Apple to partly thank for that, but hey, I’m not complaining. Horizon is a better model than the Apple App Store, especially for an open community like the Symbian Foundation.
Cheap debug hardware and software allows ISVs to develop for future versions of the platform well before they’re commercially available. This allows the development of well designed and integrated, cutting edge applications available right from the release of your new smartphone.
Now we have two cheap possibilities, and at the show we even got our hands on one of them to see how it worked.
The Beagle Board (beagleboard.org) is a cheap (US$149), small circuit board containing a Texas Instruments OMAP CPU and a small selection of hardware. It’s designed to support development of embedded devices (such as smartphones) and supports Symbian (go to beagleboard.org and you’ll see the Symbian announcement on the front page).
The Zoom (omapzoom.org) is an even more powerful device, basically a smartphone minus the cellular radio. On that device’s home page you can see the top featured project is Symbian^3 on the Zoom II.
Both of these devices provide very cheap access to the Symbian platform more than a year in advance of its commercial availability. For US$1500 (Foundation membership) plus US$1150 (Zoom II) I can run Symbian^3 on a smartphone device right now! For anyone developing software that will take advantage of features in upcoming smartphones, this is revolutionary!
For end users, this means that the range of applications really pushing the boundaries is likely to grow substantially.
Symbian in Transition
These are all signs of the direction Symbian is heading in. But it still has a long way to go:
- the source base is not all open sourced yet
- Nokia is defining the next generation UI almost entirely in-house
- most development effort is still sourced within Nokia
- other factors are still keeping parts of the platform less open than they could be.
However, it is clear that Nokia values the idea of community participation, it is clear that the Foundation understands something of how to achieve this, and it is clear that the platform has the strength and potential to really benefit from this.
The key is for all of us to ensure that these benefits flow through to the end user (you) as quickly as possible.