RIP Symbian: In Memoriam of a Mid-End Phone OS

So the writing is on the wall. In a very bold move, Nokia’s new CEO, Stephen Elop, has decided to fully ditch Nokia’s migration plan for the past few years and have the company embrace his former employer’s operating system, Windows Phone 7, instead. This noticeably implied getting rid of two competitors, Symbian and the upcoming MeeGo, which were both put on the road to slow death. This article aims at saying goodbye to an old citizen of the mobile space who’s now heading to its grave: Symbian. (Warning: Rant ahead)

When I mention Symbian, many of you are probably thinking about its terrible implementation. About regular freezes and occasional reboots for no reason, a terrible touch layer, “Not enough memory” pop ups showing up when only the messaging application is open, and most of all about the horrible thingie which Symbian has dared calling its SDK for ages before finally going in the way of sanity with Qt near the end.

Sure, Symbian was a bit lacking in terms of implementation quality, especially near the end. But there was more to Symbian than that, otherwise it would not have been #1 smartphone operating system for so long. In particular, here are three reasons why I think Symbian should be missed.

First, Symbian was one of the last remnants of a time where developers of the mobile space optimized their code for performance, even when they worked on microkernels. Where 1 GHz was not the minimal CPU spec for getting a smooth calling and texting experience. Where 24 hours were not an acceptable battery life. As such, it was one of the few things which made the choice between a simple $60 feature phone and a $700 high-end “smart” phone less clear-cut as it becomes today, as good mid-end handsets become increasingly hard to find. With Symbian, people got a fair compromise: a more advanced experience than on low-end phones (and even some high-end phones) without spending the price of a laptop either at purchase time or in overpriced data plans.

Second, Symbian was a true phone OS. A phone is fundamentally a communication-centric device (after all, that’s why we’re paying every month for the right to use a mobile network, right?), and Symbian put an emphasis on communication between people. The Symbian home screen, in particular, was very good at that on keyboard-based phones. It’s obvious that the guys who created it took a lot of care in designing a great communication experience. When properly configured, just look at it, and you instantly know about incoming texts, missed calls, agenda entries and unread e-mails. Things are clearly separated from each other, and good visual hierarchy makes sure there’s no information overflow. Want to call or text someone? Just type the beginning of its name, without even leaving that home screen, and it’s just a matter of playing with the joystick. You also have quick access to your favorite applications on top.

Here are some shots from my Nokia E63’s home screen so that you can better see how this works.

Overview of the Symbian home screen
Typing the beginning of a contact's name
Select the contact
And behold the power of symbian

Now let’s compare this to what the iPhone 4, one of the most successful high-end smartphones from today, has to offer for its $700, shall we?

iPhone 4 home screen

It sounds like after some years of putting the text app in the central application heap hell, Apple have finally discovered the importance of communication functions on a phone and decided that it would go in the dock at the bottom (along with “iPod”). A decision that was certainly just as welcome by users as the inclusion of bleeding edge communication technology like video calls or, earlier, MMS. Apart from that dock and the status bar on top, visual hierarchy remains largely an unknown concept on Apple’s handset. The iPhone home screen is essentially a big heap of applications, spreading on several virtual screens for optimal usability, and giving you only the bare minimum of information about the communication and organization side of things. For anything more, you’ll have to find and open the right application. Just grabbing the phone out of your pocket, pressing the red button, having a quick look at what’s happening, and then putting the phone back in your pocket, is not an option.

This is why I say that OSs like iOS are not true phone OSs. They are so generic that you could put them on a DAP or a tablet without changing a thing and they would work just as well (oh, wait…). Phones have very small screens and limited hardware capabilities by design (they have to fit in a pocket), a setup which literally scream for an optimized interface, and we have seen years of evolution in such interfaces in the previous years. But modern high-end smartphones just ditch it, for better of worse, in favor of a desktop-wannabe, application-centric interface.

Oh, by the way, when was the last time we’ve had an application-centric interface on the desktop?

Windows 3


Finally, the end of Symbian is also the end of an era as far as developer power is concerned. Sure, the Symbian SDK was clunky as hell. Sure, the application signing process required in order to get full access to system capabilities was a true rip-off ($200/year + $10/signed app, really?). But for the price, you really got the right to do whatever you wanted, with native code, and in the last few months you also had the powerful Qt toolkit on your side. You distributed your applications to whoever you wanted, and they installed them simply by transferring them on their phone via standardized bluetooth or USB protocols and running them. As a developer or user, you could be largely independent from the phone manufacturer, if you wanted to.

In days where phone applications either are coded in managed code on top of a large heap of limited abstractions or must be approved by the manufacturer before people may use them, won’t we reach a point where we’ll miss the times where people actually owned the handsets they paid for? Only time will tell…

For the time being, rest in peace, Symbian OS, son of EPOC. You’ve done your duty well.

Credits : Windows 3 screenshot from ToastyTech’s GUI gallery, courtesy of Nathan Lineback.


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