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Symbian, the Biggest Mobile OS No One Talks About 423

Posted by Soulskill
from the no-death-grip-or-kill-switch-stories dept.
blackbearnh writes "The iPhone vs. Android wars are in full swing, but no one talks about the mobile operating system that most of the world uses: Symbian. Part of the reason, perhaps, is that the Symbian developer infrastructure is so different from the Wild West approach that Apple and Google take. Over at O'Reilly Answers, Paul Beusterien, who is the Head of Developer Tools for the Symbian Foundation, talks about why Symbian gets ignored as a platform despite the huge number of handsets it runs on. Quoting: 'Another dimension is the type of developer community. [Historically, Symbian's type of developers] were working for consulting houses or working at phone operator places or specifically doing consulting jobs for enterprise customers who wanted mobile apps. So there's a set of consulting companies around the world that have specialized in creating apps for Symbian devices. It's a different kind of dynamic than where iPhone has really been successful at attracting just the hobbyist, or the one- or two-person company, or the person who just wants to go onto the web and start developing.'"
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Symbian, the Biggest Mobile OS No One Talks About

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    But there always seems to be quite the buzz around this product.

  • Symbian is a goner (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MBCook (132727) <foobarsoft@foobarsoft.com> on Monday July 05, 2010 @02:34PM (#32801834) Homepage

    Isn't Nokia moving to MeeGo for their premier phones? Even the guy who runs a big Symbian fan site has given up [symbian-guru.com].

    • Think most makers (Including Nokia) will still be using Symbian on their Mid to low end mobiles for years to come.
      If they would just drop the disaster that is the S60 GUI (Well I think it is) and build a decent GUI for Symbian it might stick around longer..

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by AuMatar (183847)

        They're moving to QT.

        • QT is not an OS, you flid. Your comment makes as much sense as saying that they're switching from Linux to Gnome.

          • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

            by maaleron (456278)
            Focus sunshine. GP was complaining that Nokia needs to update their GUI and the move to QT makes complete sense.
          • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday July 05, 2010 @05:36PM (#32803376) Journal
            Neither of you are entirely right.

            QT isn't an OS, so saying that they are "switching to QT" is indeed wrong; but saying "Symbian" has, traditionally, implied much more about the UI, widget set, and preferred programming languages than saying "Linux" has. S60, UIQ, and MOAP are all closely tied to Symbian, and all pretty different from QT, though they cover much of the same ground, so the QT switch means that a lot of the guts of those are headed for the cutting room floor.

            Symbian/QT is about as similar to prior Symbian+UI/PIM layer iterations as Android is to a traditional Linux setup(possibly less so, actually, because virtually everything but the native X support is still there behind the scenes with Android, you just can't see it without some poking).
    • Isn't Nokia moving to MeeGo for their premier phones?

      Yes, Symbian is Nokia's (old, obsolete) OS for the mass-market phones that people buy when they just want a phone. That puts it out of the smartphone market, which is why "no one talks about it" when they're talking about Android and iOS. The article's attempt to equate Symbian with these is a bit disingenuous.

      • Yes, Symbian is Nokia's (old, obsolete) OS for the mass-market phones that people buy when they just want a phone

        Nope. That's the S40 range. Symbian is used on the smartphone range where ram,cpu,battery matter.

        If you don't give a crap about battery life then there's the Linux systems which are coming in.
         

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by squiggleslash (241428)

        Nokia's "smartphones" (I hate that term, ever since Jobs redefined it to mean "Locked down phone that only runs software approved by the manufacturer" - Nokia has produced smartphones using the original definition, a phone that includes an open architecture pocketable computer, since the Nokia 9000) have run Symbian or its direct predecessors since the Nokia 9290. The OS has its roots in an OS developed originally for the Psion PDAs. The surprise, in many ways, is that it's used for bare bones phones, as i

    • by Luckyo (1726890) on Monday July 05, 2010 @03:43PM (#32802454)

      SymbianS60v3 and S60v5 (also known as Symbian^1) still powers pretty much all nokia's touch screen phones, which alone sell more then android and iphone combined.
      Symbian^2 is fairly popular in Japan, due to its extremely low system requirements (same as ^1 really), and some specialized features.
      Symbian^3 which is being developed for n8 seems to be the natural evolution of Symbian^1, i.e. mid range smart phone OS.

      The problem is that unlike android and iphone, these phones are very competitively priced, and sacrifice "bling" features for actual function, such as better features, lower price and business-directed application support. As a result, there's many fewer people with "loose money" who are willing to sink a few euros/dollars/etc into some funny looking application on a weekly basis. They also tend to look much less pretty, focusing on function, and have slower hardware, meaning less responsive UI, which is advertised as a major feature on IOS and android.

      This is really noticeable even on OVI store. Almost no games, but a shitload of various business-oriented and rather expensive applications ranging from call recorders to improved ms exchange handling to translation software. This stuff just doesn't sell to the young adult croud. Add to that the fact that much of smartphone hype is US-driven, and Symbian being big pretty much everywhere in the world but the US, you get the perfect storm scenario where little players on the market completely outshine the real behemoth in marketing and publicity.

      • which alone sell more then android and iphone combined.

        Yup, for all the apple and linux flamewars ticking over and back on slashdot, its a bit of a surprise that most members missed the leviathan slowly cruising under their noses.

      • All of Nokia's N-series smartphones will run MeeGo not Symbian [reuters.com] after the N8.

    • by Weezul (52464)

      MeeoGo will only become the OS for Nokia's flagship smart phones. In fact, Symbian's market share will only increase over the next 5 years as Nokia roles out smaller mid- to low-level smartphones. You'll never see Apple selling an iPhone for only $25. Android has no intrinsic distaste for inexpensive phones, but all that java code eats cpu cycles.

      All your Nokia and Symbian fan boys are also major fans of raw hardware specs, which means they're annoyed at choosing between owning the beefy power phone funn

    • by krischik (781389)

      Only by the time MeGoo is ready the marked will be carved up between iOS, Android and maybe RIM and only some breadcrumbs will be left for other OS offerings.

  • Not to mention (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Monkeedude1212 (1560403) on Monday July 05, 2010 @02:37PM (#32801854) Journal

    The competitors are GOOGLE and APPLE, which have done more than just created a phone operating system, so they get a lot of buzz.

    The fact that these two names come up more than twice Daily might have something to do with why I'd be interested in their phone business.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by levell (538346) *

      Well Symbian has Nokia behind it, and they aren't a small company.

      But I'm not persuaded it's all about the companies backing it. The soon to be released, MeeGo [meego.com] phones have Nokia backing too (as well as Intel) but I'm much more excited about that than Symbian. Having a fairly standard Linux stack on my phone is something I love about my N900 [nokia.com] and I'm looking forward to its successor.

      • by Kensai7 (1005287)

        Symbian hasn't got Nokia behind it more that it has, say, Apple.

        Symbian is an autonomous Foundation today that licenses its open OS to phone manufacturer. Yes, Nokia is still the bigger user but this shouldn't be its selling point.

        There is one other minor detail that everybody ignores and it will probably revolutionize the whole Symbian OS business: it's using Qt. Next year a bunch of MeeGo devices will be out (both from Nokia and other manufacturers) and by using Qt a developer could target- with minor cha

  • by multipartmixed (163409) on Monday July 05, 2010 @02:38PM (#32801874) Homepage

    ...is they keep forgetting if it's Symbian or Sybian that's "work safe"

  • It isn't ignored (Score:5, Insightful)

    by 0xdeadbeef (28836) on Monday July 05, 2010 @02:39PM (#32801880) Homepage Journal

    It is actively despised.

    • The company I work for develops for many platforms and it was trying to have a line of Symbian apps as well. The effort required for porting from one OS version to the next was usualy not insignificant (ridiculous - most other OS's are more or less backwards compatible) and especially the jump from 8 to 9.x was so big that the boss just decided to give up on the platform (the non-existent app store or distribution system plus the fact we would have to keep working on separate versions to support pre-OS 9.x

  • by SuperKendall (25149) on Monday July 05, 2010 @02:40PM (#32801910)

    If you look around, you can ALSO find the same groups of people doing consulting work for companies around iPhone and Android development. Yes it's true that both platforms also have the hobby developers, but that's only a small part of the overall market.

    In fact if you think about it you could argue the iPhone had a leg up on said base of serious developers, because there was already a reasonably large base of professional Mac developers around before the iPhone - I would argue probably more than there were ever dedicated Symbian developers.

    The problem Symbian had is the same problem WinCE and the same problem Android WOULD have had if, being Java based, they had just tried to bring J2ME forward a bit more into the smartphone realm. Both Android and iPhoneOS are designed from the ground up to be fully featured operating systems, without a ton of compromises and pretty old design philosophies baked into other existing mobile platforms. Yes there are a ton of Symbian devices around, but does that matter when you know you can sell an order of magnitude more software developing for the iPhone or Android?

    It's only a matter of time before corporate use of these two platforms totally eclipses Symbian development in the enterprise, if it's not already happened.

     

  • Past benefits doesn't guarantee future income. In my opinion it makes no sense unless for "dumb devices".
  • My last two Nokia phones have been an absolute disaster, the first a 6600 fold locks up if you press the 6 key, thats right you can't use the 6 key. It's a common fault and and seems like one of those bugs that is so bizzare that nokia have n't been able to fix it because it does n't affect every phone. I then made the mistake of getting a N97 Mini and I can honestly say it will be my last Nokia phone, the CPU is so under powered its like a sick joke and the phone interface is terrible.

    There was a time wh

    • by horza (87255)

      I have to say that I'm very happy with my E71. Full keyboard, nice screen, and Symbian so I can run whatever software I want. Opera Mini really improves it. Camera is not great, but has full GPS. Much slimmer than the Blackberry.

      I've read that in Android Google can remotely install and remove apps at will, so that goes on my blacklist along with the iPhone. Hopefully HTC can port their Sense interface directly onto Linux. Now THAT is a phone I would buy.

      Phillip.

  • I've got a Symbian S60 device myself, an aging Nokia N73... I can't wait to switch to a more modern Linux-based operating system. Even Nokia has dumped it on their N-series devices! I tried writing some PyS60 apps for mine, but it was just too slow and underpowered. I can't have more than one app open at a time because it has so little memory...but it did do a lot with a little.

    • Just dumped my N78 for an Android device (the Desire). Best thing I did, the N78 was buggy (couldn't even use it as an alarm clock properly, there was a bug which meant if the alarm went off while the phone was turned off, later on that day at a random point the date would jump forward by 6 days), slow, and had very few supported apps as it wasn't a sexy touch screen device. The alarm clock thing was reproducible on every single one of the 4 stock Nokia firmwares I put onto it, everyone complained about it,

    • It has so little memory because it was released, what, 3 years ago? My N93 is not much better, having ~20MB of free RAM after boot, but they probably could not fit more memory to it without making it too expensive. Still, I can use Google Maps, Garmin Mobile XT (with external bluetooth GPS receiver) and Opera Mobile 10.00 though not at the same time and Opera sometimes runs out of memory, especially on large sites.

      But the phone is easy to use, has a large keypad and no touch screen (I read somewhere that mo

  • by Yuioup (452151) on Monday July 05, 2010 @03:01PM (#32802122)

    The reason why it's ignored is because it's a pain in the ass to develop for. The options that you have is as follows:

    * Download a very heavy C++ ide which was, till recently, locked down. You had to get a "professional" license if you wanted to do something useful. There is the "express" version but it was deliberately crippled. Oh yeah it only runs on Windows.

    * If you wanted to distribute your app you had to get it signed. Ok sure yeah that sounds easy enough, but I can't tell you how often I get the "this app is untrusted" message.

    * If you're a developer like me who is uncomfortable using a low level language you can go the Java route. Yeah. Write once, debug everywhere. It's a mess. I can't even get my midlet to get the IMEI code of the phone so I can use it for authentication.

    * A beautiful middle ground is Python for S60. I tried to install it recently on my Nokia N73. A huge bag of fail.

    * Yeah sure Symbian is open source. I want to download the source, build it and run it. Have you read the instructions to get it up and running under Linux? Let's just say that it goes way over my head. I heard on a podcast that Nokia uses some kind of circuit board made by Texas Instruments. Ok, so I need to go get some specialized device just to run the kernel? Please.

    * Ooh ooh. There's also Qt Creator. Cool. Tried to install the demos. Didn't work.

    * JavaFx. ... *sound of crickets*

    So basically the choices you have as a developer are too many and every choice leads to a dead end.
    It's really frustrating. That's why my next phone is the HTC desire. I can download and run the development environment on Linux. I can also be sure that my users will be able to run it without jumping through hoops. Trying to support an app running in Symbian is a nightmare.

    Y

    • Yeah, that's a real killer. Samsungs Bada is the same - dev environment is Windows only. As soon as I saw that I knew it was dead in the water. I know a lot of really great, passionate software developers. The sort who obsess over the details of their software and make great things. None of them use Windows as their primary OS.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by stanlyb (1839382)
      I am developer too, and in a matter of day, i succeeded to make a virtual machine, with all the C++ IDE, QT IDE, whatever IDE installed and configured, and to actually create the famous "HELLO WORLD" application, out of the box. As simple as that. And my current phone is Nokia too, and it is under Symbian, and it has OVI MAPS, which is FREE, i repeat, FREE, and it has Ovi Store with a tons of free applications and tones and wallpapers, and much much more. Oh, one last thing, my phone actually works, as is s
    • by arf_barf (639612)

      Same experience here. Developing in Symbian C++ is very slow and tedious. It is almost as bad as developing for AVR with AVRStudio.

      They also fumbled big time when it some to Python.I created a few apps with it but unfortunately the runtime has too many crashing bugs and it looks like they are not interested in fixing those.

    • C++ is actually a pretty high level abstraction, there's not much low about it apart from easily using C when you need to. But that's optional... (unless the API is all C, but I thought it was C++).

    • by bigtrike (904535) on Monday July 05, 2010 @06:08PM (#32803646)

      Until recently you had to jump through hoops for all object construction and memory allocation. It was very difficult to write or use even basic algorithms that are compatible with both Symbian and anything else. See http://wiki.forum.nokia.com/index.php/Two-phase_construction [nokia.com] If you don't do it quite right, your code will probably still work in their "simulator," but will fail on the actual device. Remote debugging the simulator used to require two physical serial ports looped to each other via null modem cable.

      Personally, I'd rather develop for any other platform.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 05, 2010 @03:12PM (#32802212)

    I used to work for Symbian a few years back. The company has comprehensively screwed every big decision it has taken. In no particular order, these were:

    - Treating the app developer as some annoyance to be fobbed off whenever possible. No idea what's it's like now, but back in the day, to develop an app for Symbian you have to splash out on a compiler which retailed at over $2k. And if god forbid you wanted to actually debug code running on your device (rather than the not particularly good emulator), well, then you need a HW debugger box which ran to another $2k

    - Completely and comprehensively fragmenting the eco-system whenever the slightest opportunity to do so arose. Hence Symbian never really existed as a platform per se - it was all an obscure and vast ecosytem of devices each with its own configuration - hence the prolliferation of Series 40, 60, 70, UIQ etc etc.

    - As an operating system, Symbian was passable, although it was written way before it's time. Hence it assumed the C++ compiler didn't know about exception handling and did everyting possible to conserve every last resource of the device at the expense of making developing for it an activity which took quite a long time to acquire a taste for.

    - Quite a few bits of Symbian got taken over by the detritus that got ejected from Ericsson and Lucent when they collapsed. Hence you had all these big company people introducing processes used to launch space shuttles into space - exactly what you don't need if you're trying to innovate in one of the most rapidly changing industries.

    Or at least that's my 2c.

    • This report [techcrunch.com] does seem to agree with you. In particular I note things like this:

      - In terms of debugging, ourbenchmarking shows that Android has the fastest debugging process, compared with iPhone, Symbian and Java ME. Debugging in Symbian takes up more than twice the time it takes on Android.

      This isn't surprising. I am naturally a C++ developer - though I move between languages frequently, currently, I get paid to write mostly in C++. I've also done some J2ME in the past. So when I heard that Android was J

  • Nokia 5800 (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Kenshin (43036) <kenshin@@@lunarworks...ca> on Monday July 05, 2010 @03:14PM (#32802232) Homepage

    I recently picked-up a Nokia 5800 because it was a good price, I didn't need to get locked into a long contract (this is Canada), and I got an unusually cheap unlimited mobile data plan for it. (Money's tight.)

    As a smart phone, yes, it's laughable how few apps are available for it, and I still have iPhone/Android envy... but it does the job well enough for me without breaking the bank.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJpEuMidcSU [youtube.com] - is about as true as it gets. As someone who had the various n95 models reading about the n97 sounded like a dream come true - so I bought it the day it came out :/. Yes it can do everything the iPhone can do - or even Android (it even has features that Android doesn't have - like copying files over bluetooth) but they are all unusable or extremely clunky.

    It had a webkit based browser, flashlite etc etc (so a good chunk of websites looked ok on it) - but was slow

  • So was BREW (Score:3, Insightful)

    by NicknamesAreStupid (1040118) on Monday July 05, 2010 @03:40PM (#32802424)
    and Java ME. Just try to get an app certified, you may begin to appreciate iPhone or Android. BTW, phone companies want 70%, not 30%.
  • by jjohnson (62583)

    I'm working on an independently funded project right now with a marketing exec, a UI guy, and a flash dev from Nokia. They're all good, smart people; they all refer to Nokia as "Jokia". The exec is running the project, and is continually astounded that the money she pays us consultants 1) actually gets her something, and 2) is paid out after delivering something on time.

    Put Nokia in the same bin as Dell, where years of focus on cost-management has destroyed an innovative company that once led the market.

  • iPhone has really been successful at attracting just the hobbyist, or the one- or two-person company, or the person who just wants to go onto the web and start developing.

    Right, hobbyists like Microsoft, IBM, Accenture, Oracle, Computer Sciences Corporation, SAP, Yahoo!, Electronic Arts, Activision, Ubisoft, Take-Two...

    iPhone has really been successful at attracting developers of all sizes including the hobbyist, or the one- or two-person company, or the person who just wants to go onto the web and start developing.

    There, I fixed that for you.

  • I always think it says sybian and am disappointed each time.

  • by pslam (97660) on Monday July 05, 2010 @06:40PM (#32803912) Homepage Journal

    It's been a year or so since I last used Symbian (thank science) but it struck me at the time just how much crap they put in the way of you actually developing apps.

    Take this quite normal scenario: You need an extra engineer on cell phone app development. You need them to install an environment and be productive as soon as possible. Here's what happens with Android:

    • Google search for 'android sdk'. Download SDK after 1-2 click-thrus. A few minutes to download and install
    • Run emulator (nod in appreciation how easy that was).
    • Read instructions for favorite editor plugin (e.g eclipse), setup. Compile and run 'Hello World' app.
    • 'Enable untrusted sources' on real device, couple of setup things, running Hello World on cell phone
    • Be productive within 1 hour.

    iPhone is much the same plus some sign-ups:

    • Google search / go to apple.com, search. Get a developer account (quick verification). A few minutes to download and install
    • Run Xcode. Use app generator tool, run in emulator (nod).
    • Get signing key for real device (automated, few minutes). Select iPhone target, recompile, run with device connected, works on cell phone
    • Be productive within 1 hour.

    Here's Symbian/Nokia's idea of Getting Started:

    • Google search for 'symbian sdk'. Ok there's like 3 versions depending on which device, all incompatible.
    • Download appropriate version. 3 times: x86 simulator, arm emulator, arm target. Dick around with moving them into fixed locations on C:
    • Download 10 patches for various compiler bugs. Manually move patches in place and run scripts.
    • Find the bundled IDE is unusably shit and revert to your own editor. Dick around with poorly documented build systems and eventually get something compiled.
    • Find you can't even run the simulator without a signing key (WTF). Apply for a developer key. Find that this is a Web 0.5 experience and imagine some Norwegian dude is sorting these by hand.
    • HOURS LATER you finally run the simulator and find it doesn't work because of an obscure missing CFLAG.
    • You then try it on a real Symbian device. Oh, you need another signing key. Some hours (took me 24 hours) later you have that.
    • Swear in frustration as the build system fails to switch simply to ARM target on real device.
    • Be productive within 1 week.

    Pardon my English, but that's not how to make a fucking SDK. I will refrain from talking about the daily experience of coding for Symbian, because I may start using a lot of profanity.

  • by Miamicanes (730264) on Monday July 05, 2010 @07:11PM (#32804184)

    OK, here's the two hundred ton elephant wearing a pink tutu dancing between Lady Gaga and Madonna that (surprisingly) nobody seems to have mentioned yet: for all intents and purposes, Symbian doesn't exist in the United States. As far as I know, you can't go to a store operated by Sprint, Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile and buy a brand new phone subsidized by the carrier that runs Symbian (maybe, MAYBE Nextel might have one imported from Japan, but I wouldn't count on it).

    Actually, it goes deeper than that -- as far as I know, you can't even buy a phone running Symbian, period, that's capable of 3G data on any network in the United States (with the *possible* exception of an imported Japanese phone that by some miracle of God might work on Nextel). For whatever reason, Symbian is almost a synonym for "Expensive GSM phone that nevertheless can't do EDGE, and is capable of 3G UMTS only at 1900/2100MHz". Thus, no sane American likely to be remotely interested in a phone running Symbian is going to go out and spend $500 or more to buy an unlocked phone that's basically a GPRS paperweight capable of making voice calls in a pinch.

    "Invisible and Irrelevant in America" == "Invisible and Irrelevant to American Journalists" (who happen to generate most of the English-language content that gets read worldwide, and highly influence the rest of it). Thus, daily headlines about iPhone and Android. Occasional mentions of Palm. <tongue location="cheek">Symbian? Is that, like, the new name for Palm or Windows Mobile or something? </tongue>

    The fact that Symbian started enforcing code-signing a couple of years ago (effectively shutting out casual developers who've always been welcomed with open arms by Android and pre-Kin/7 Microsoft) certainly hasn't helped, either... the moment they did that, they effectively wrote off a big chunk of their most influential and outspoken EUROPEAN former users, too.

  • Nokia Qt SDK (Score:4, Interesting)

    by guruz (645678) on Tuesday July 06, 2010 @02:19AM (#32807198) Homepage
    I really hope that the Nokia Qt SDK will change the Symbian 3rd party developer landscape.
    http://www.forum.nokia.com/Develop/Qt/ [nokia.com]
    Disclosure: I work inside Nokia on Qt.

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