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Symbian, the Biggest Mobile OS No One Talks About 423

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 multipartmixed ( 163409 ) on Monday July 05, 2010 @02:43PM (#32801944) Homepage

    Minor nit -- it's not that you need a different phone to get tethering, you need a better carrier.

    My Rogers iPhone works just fine for tethering. All I have to do is turn Internet Tethering on in the preferences, then plug it into the sync cable. Leopard pops up a dialog box which says something like "Hey! New Ethernet Interface found; would you like to use it?" -- click Ok, disable any other active network interface (or tweak your routing table) and bam: you're surfing on 3G.

    I don't know how to do it in Windows, but it can't be much harder.

  • Re:Not to mention (Score:3, Informative)

    by levell ( 538346 ) * on Monday July 05, 2010 @02:57PM (#32802090) Homepage

    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 [] 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 [] and I'm looking forward to its successor.

  • by AuMatar ( 183847 ) on Monday July 05, 2010 @02:58PM (#32802096)

    They're moving to QT.

  • 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.


  • by IamTheRealMike ( 537420 ) on Monday July 05, 2010 @03:08PM (#32802172)
    As a Brit living in Switzerland, I disagree. Nobody cares about Symbian in Europe either.
  • by Colin Smith ( 2679 ) on Monday July 05, 2010 @03:08PM (#32802174)

    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.

  • by oji-sama ( 1151023 ) on Monday July 05, 2010 @03:39PM (#32802416)

    Both are dead ends.

    Why develop serious applications for something that's only supported by a single manufacturer these days.

    Right. Go see Symbian Foundation [] and click devices, then select year 2010 and apply. Which one of them is the single manufacturer that supports this open source platform?

  • by squiggleslash ( 241428 ) on Monday July 05, 2010 @03:54PM (#32802558) Homepage Journal

    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 its somewhat overengineered for such tasks.

    I can't say I particularly like the environment, but to argue that it's unsuited, or unused, for smartphones is to demonstrate a certain amount of ignorance of the history of the OS. Arguably it's on a par with iOS in terms of capabilities, if not slightly more powerful, but lacking the standardized and high quality user interface of the latter. The lack of a requirement for apps to be managed code puts it slightly behind Android.

  • by Steve Max ( 1235710 ) on Monday July 05, 2010 @04:09PM (#32802724) Journal

    I spent countless hours in attempts to getting the SDK up and running for Symbian.

    My programming experience with Symbian has been very positive. I bypassed the whole SymbianC++ clusterfuck and went to Python []. Can't use it for a high performance game, sure, but all you have to do to start up is installing the framework on your phone. Your first "hello world" can't take more than a few minutes after that.

    - Firstly there is S40, S60 and countless other types of symbian devices.

    Actually, there's only Symbian. S40 isn't a smartphone OS and isn't related to Symbian in any way; and UIQ, Series80 and Series90 are completely dead. Symbian now is the evolution of what was called S60.

    - Then there are versions to each of S40, S60 etc.

    If you want to target any device that is on the market now (and that has been on the market for the past 3 years), all you have is the touchscreen Symbian^1 and the non-touch S60v3. Develop for S60v3 (or S60 3rd edition) and any Symbian device can run your program; develop for Symbian^1 (also called S60v5, or S60 5th edition) and any touchscreen Symbian can run your program.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 05, 2010 @05:43PM (#32803422)

    Ever heard of Bluetooth? It's specifically designed for this purpose (among others) in mind. And on non-operator-crippled phones, the Bluetooth tethering for packet data is basically always there unless the phone is an absolutely low-end device. No need to spend hundreds and hundreds of euros in unsubsidized price to get this feature that has been there for at least half a decade.

    Yah, that works, but you're burning the candle at both ends. Plugging the phone into a laptop with USB simultaneously uses the lower power wired data connection and powers the phone off the bigger laptop battery. WTF would you do it the other way unless you simply did not have a USB cable?

  • by Kumiorava ( 95318 ) on Monday July 05, 2010 @06:02PM (#32803582)

    Problem is that the article talks about "most used OS in the world". If we start limiting our selection to usable Symbian versions then we have to talk about "the least used OS in the world".

    You cannot do it both ways, count all Symbian phones and versions out there and same time boast some irrelevantly small number of devices that supposedly makes development easy.

  • 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, 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 sznupi ( 719324 ) on Monday July 05, 2010 @10:17PM (#32805604) Homepage

    Heh, not only more than "more then android and iphone combined", actually more than RIM and iPhone combined, the 2nd and 3rd (at this point); and actually still on the verge of selling more than next three (RIM, iPhone, Android) combined.
    All in market reports; but go ahead and "call bullshit."

    Sure, Symbian is only a small part (around 20%) of what Nokia sells, but that together with its dominating position is only a sign of how huge Nokia is - they sell annually an order of magnitude more phones than the total number of iPhones ever made.

    Those $$$ reflect also feelings and expectations of "investors" (which is frawned by /. in other cases...oh well). But ignore things like Nokia actually owning all if their (over a dozen) manufacturing facilities (most of them not in China, half of them in the EU, one even quite close to Cupertino...), massive R&D (you have again no idea what you're talking about here, stuff like Webkit is nowhere near the same league; and some are possibly freeriding on this R&D, we'll see how this case ends up), or that Nokia contributing greatly to close to 5 billion mobile subscribers is a monumental shift for humanity (one which will also give great opportunities for "investment"). A shift many companies don't care about, openly stating they target only "premium" people living in "premium" places.

  • by sznupi ( 719324 ) on Tuesday July 06, 2010 @02:44AM (#32807350) Homepage

    What's stopping you from using other software? It's, you know, a smartphone; that's the point behind it.

    Opera Mini is nice for touchscreen devices now; and speeds up also the perceptual speed of the connection as a bonus.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 06, 2010 @01:01PM (#32813124)

    --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).

    Symbian exists and you wouldn't even known it.

    Go to T-Mobile...pick up their Nokia 5230 Nuron. Note - I think it's a free phone now, was $60 originally. Note - T-Mobile does NOT consider it a smart phone - so you don't get hit with the $30 charge for Web Access (only $10).

    5230 is a Symbian S60. Picked it up when I couldn't justify an Android Phone.

    Download the SDK. It's not as easy as developing for the Android (got that working in the emulator in less than an hour), but there is something there.

Information is the inverse of entropy.