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Symbian: The Next Generation

While Symbian’s condition isn’t pretty, it’s not all doom and gloom for the world’s largest smartphone OS.  Symbian still has a lot going for it, and if Nokia can get all their ducks in a row they have the potential to make themselves a formidable rival against Android and iOS

Quality Control – The main problem with Symbian S60v5 was the overall usability and stability.  They simply didn’t do enough testing and research to figure out the best way to implement the UI.  The OS has a very thrown-together feel to it.  In addition, there were just too many bugs in initial releases.  My N97 was practically unusable until firmware version v11 and the 5530 XpressMusic had kinetic scrolling enabled only in a few areas(the main menu was not one of them) which added to confusion as to when one could use it and when one couldn’t.  Releasing phones with beta-like builds of the OS is not going to make Symbian look good in anyone’s eyes.  Not to mention that not all consumers understand how to update their phones.  They expect the out of box experience to work, as they should.

Frequent Updates – No software is perfect, and I don’t expect Symbian to be either.  Having a few minor or even major bugs isn’t that big of a deal so long as they are fixed quickly.  Speed in fixing errors shows the consumer that you care about them even after you’ve taken their money.  Fixing existing issues should be a top priority after a product launches, especially on your high-end offerings.  Having annoying bugs that linger for over a year(the ringtone bug comes to mind) is unacceptable and tarnishes Symbian’s reputation.

Hardware – Perhaps Symbian should take a page from Microsoft’s playbook and implement minimum hardware specifications.  At least when it comes to cpus, ram and on-board storage.  Allowing hardware to be released with specs like the N97 causes performance issues that probably wouldn’t be noticed had it been given some decent components.  With weak hardware, the OS needs to be extra efficient in order to run smoothly.  This means more work for Symbian devs and less enjoyment from users.  Why not give Symbian more breathing room and bump up the specs?  Even the, to be released, N8 has weak hardware compared to stuff that’s already out.  A 12MP camera and HDMI out are only good if the OS doesn’t crash while you try to use it. 

Qt – This is where Nokia’s strategy shines.  Qt is Nokia’s cross-platform framework.  It runs on OSX, Linux, Windows, Symbian, and MeeGo, with ports to iOS, webOS, and Android(among others).  What does this mean for Symbian?  More apps that can run in Symbian and more people willing to develop for Qt since they can reach such a large audience.  With Nokia focusing their efforts on MeeGo, Symbian users will be able to tap into the same pool of developers as MeeGo users.

MeeGo – To Symbian lovers, MeeGo might seem like the harbinger of death, but that’s far from the truth.  Let’s face it, Symbian isn’t the pride of anyone’s mobile lineup anymore.  Symbian is just too old and dated to be saved, not to mention all the negative publicity it’s been getting for the past year.  The cost of fixing Symbian and its image is far too high for anyone to bother with, but Nokia’s invested too much into the platform to just let it die.  To me, MeeGo is a reboot for Nokia like Windows Phone 7 is for Microsoft.  The relationship between Symbian and MeeGo isn’t much different from that of WinMo and WP7.  Symbian and WinMo have been around for ages and were both once the only serious contenders in the smartphone market.  Now they stand bitterly defeated with little hope of recovery.  Microsoft chose to kill WinMo and refocus entirely on WP7.  Nokia, on the other hand, decided to keep Symbian around.  The problem with WP7 is that it primarily targets the high-end market.  Yes, Microsoft said there will be a low-end chassis for certain regions, but they’ve been very vague about it, and we have yet to see how they will differentiate those products from their main lineup.  Nokia has a simple solution for targeting the low-end segment, Symbian!  If MeeGo is Batman then Symbian is Robin.  With Qt, they can share applications(the Batmobile) while remaining differentiated(separate seats).  The downside to this is that Symbian’s success is now tied completely to MeeGo’s.  If MeeGo fails to attract enough users and developers than Symbian will go down with it.  But let’s remember Nokia’s only other option is to kill Symbian now, so they really don’t have anything to lose by keeping it around.

Conclusion – Since Symbian is now in a support role, it need not be exceptional or deliver a perfect user experience.  If Nokia can polish off Symbian so that’s usable, and they seem to be doing just that with Symbian^3, then they have a fighting change to target low-end users who want smartphones, but don’t want to pay out the wazoo for one.  Symbian and MeeGo could be the one-two punch that Nokia desperately needs to get back into the smartphone game.