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Just where they want to be

7/12/09


The recent trend is shoes  has been that practicality trumps flair. Crocs and UGGs might look as pedestrian as their names suggest, but like love, fashion is blind. We’ll no doubt see a return to the classics – the kitten heel and Mary Jane. Even the current love of the ballet pump would be sensible if it were not December.

The thing about fashion is that it rules decisions. So the fashionable view of mobile operating systems becomes perceived wisdom, becomes fact. The popular view of Symbian is that it’s on the backfoot. That Android is the dominant operating system (quiet, all you iPhone users), and that if Nokia was sensible it would embrace Android.

But, Nokia has Symbian just where it wants it. I suspect more by luck than judgement. It’s become an open, proprietary OS.

As a handset manufacturer, at least as a successful handset manufacturer, you hate paying royalties per handset.  So the original Symbian model was a bit difficult. It was a company owned by Motorola, Ericsson, Psion and Nokia: if you were successful at increasing your sales you ended up giving a bit of your profits to your rivals. Or at least to a company in which your rivals had a shareholding. As Nokia piled money into Series 60 and N-gage it looked as though they were paying to build a market their rivals would benefit from.

And then Open Source happened. The problem with Open Source is that people think that because they can change things they should. Adding a parameter to a call here or tweaking something there. Which all ends up in the programs being tied to a specific version of the operating system. You have to  spend so much time managing the versions, merging forward and back  you don’t have any time to write the applications. It’s all better left alone

You do however need to be able to see how the bits of the operating system you are calling work. This gets to one of my pet hates. The difference between “what it does” and “how it works”. The phrase “how it works” has come to mean “what I have to do to use it”, not what goes on inside. Here where I say “how it works” I mean just that. You need to be able to read the operating system code to understand what that code is going to do with the data you give it.

The ideal is full disclosure of the source code, but no power to fiddle.

And that is what Nokia have with Symbian. In theory anyone who is a member of the foundation can submit changes but in practice changes will sit in approvals for so long it is Nokia which has the power, not least because they own it. Even if a change was made it won’t necessarily find its way into the Nokia version.

And what they have with Symbian is a great, lean operating system, mature and battle scared with all the drivers and services a robot could dream of. It’s rather unfortunate that Nokia has then put a nasty and bloated user interface on top but recent Nokia announcements make it sound as though they are going to do something about that.

What they have now is an OS which is as open as programmers need, but over which they have complete control, which doesn’t affect the bill of materials of the phones, is mature and has a huge programming community. All they need to do now is build hardware as good as the Dext to put it into.

I’m not suggesting Android will fail, it will probably make the transition from  fashionable to stylish, but I don’t see anyone wanting Palm Pre in 2012. Symbian is the sensible brogue of mobile operating systems. It’s always there in the back of the wardrobe as others come and go.

Cat Keynes publishes her thoughts on the mobile phone industry every Sunday at www.catkeynes.com you can read the column the previous Friday by subscribing here.

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