Google I/O: A Wake-Up Call for the Symbian Community

I was at Google I/O last week and was quite impressed with the progress of the Android team and wanted to share some ideas about what the Symbian community can learn. First, some of the highlights:

Android Froyo Highlights

  • Speed – JIT generates a 2x-5x speedup
  • Enterprise – Microsoft Exchange now supported
  • Services – Cloud to device API, Tethering
  • Browser – 2x-3x JavaScript performance improvement.
  • Market – Update all; Download apps and music directly from PC to installation via cloud
  • Android and Symbian

    As I sat through the keynotes and the Android sessions, it became clear that a deep developer enablement ethos permeates the Android team. While Symbian has traditionally viewed phone manufacturers as the primary customer, Android views the developer as the primary customer with phone manufacturers being a conduit to get to the developers.  Symbian is strong at security, hardware enablement, and power management.  Android is strong at responsiveness, usability, and developer attractiveness. Symbian can learn from some of Android’s strengths at enabling the community to create applications to enrich the mobile platform vibrancy.

    On the flip side, it’s interesting that many of the Google I/O Android sessions focused on helping developers with power management, asynchronous programming and performance — areas that Symbian programmers have addressed for years.

    The Device is Step One

    The Symbian community is making admirable progress at replicating the Symbian Limited product model in open source. Providing a platform for device manufacturers is no longer enough. The platform also needs to attract developers.

    Developer Enablement Permeation

    Symbian is improving its developer experience by adding the cross-platform Qt development environment and runtime to the platform. Qt is purposely a layer on top of the platform. It does not permeate the whole platform to improve application creation and usage. I was particularly impressed by the “Writing zippy Android apps” session, in which a Google engineer talked about finding performance, responsiveness, and usability issues and then communicating to the multiple responsible teams to get the issues fixed. The Symbian community should empower similar types of initiatives. Too often, developer and application improvement initiatives are rejected or delayed because of concerns about hardware shipping deadlines, cross-functional challenges, or security concerns.

    Speed and Urgency

    Android is making plenty of mistakes, but iterating fast enough so that mistakes get quickly fixed. Froyo is the fourth release since April 2009.

    Tools for Mobile Web

    Despite a lot of information about programming for the web and developing for Android separately, I did not see any content at Google I/O to improve web programming for Android. From a developer perspective, it would be ideal to write a program once and have it work on any mobile device. This will not likely to be possible anytime soon with Objective C, Dalvik Java or Qt C++. However, devices are converging to all supporting WebKit html5 supported web browsers. At the same time, there is increasing access from the browser directly to device capabilities like contacts, location, and camera. In addition to supporting emerging Web mobile runtime standards like phonegap and BONDI, I’d like to see Android join with the Symbian Foundation, Eclipse Foundation, and others in advancing developer tools for mobile web developers with the Tools for the Mobile Web project.

    Conclusion

    There is clearly a need for more than one open mobile platform. Choice will benefit everyone in the mobile eco-system and spur further innovations. As the most deployed smart-phone OS in the world, Symbian is well-positioned to be one of those platforms.  To do so, it should leverage its strengths and learn from the successes and innovations of the newer market players, especially around developer enablement.


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    5 Responses

    1. I couldn’t agree more Paul.

      Particularly : “While Symbian has traditionally viewed phone manufacturers as the primary customer, Android views the developer as the primary customer with phone manufacturers being a conduit to get to the developers”. This is *vital* if Symbian is going to flourish and not merely find itself being pushed down into the mid-to-low range device for Nokia consumers (the new S40).

      HTML5 is very nice but it is leading rapidly to the devices becoming interchangeable commodities. When development is done in common cross-platform tools for cross-platform environments what leader-advantage does Symbian bring?

    2. David, thanks for the comments. Fragmentation of runtimes and tools is not good for developers nor for platform providers. Common development environments enable more focus on innovative applications and services, creating more value for the entire mobile space. Providers still should differentiate, but not at the expense of the developer.

    3. Great observations Paul. They set some interesting objectives for Symbian. Question is – how do you implement what you mention?

      As you state, Symbian’s traditional primary customer has been the phone manufacturer, and as we know they have their own ideas about how to ‘manage’ (some say control/monetize) the application developer space. As indeed do the carriers.

      Offering two faces to the two customers and not being seen as two-faced, will be a challenge. Not impossible, merely very difficult.

      Common development environments may help, but they don’t address this core question. Thoughts?

    4. Geoff, thanks for the comments and questions.

      I’m not sure I would call it “two faces”, versus supporting two different user scenarios. There is quite a bit of difference between platform developer and application developer requirements.

      You can see this distinction with http://developer.android.com and http://source.android.com. Symbian will do something comparable.

    5. This blog was picked up by the Symbian Foundation blog today at http://blog.symbian.org/2010/06/04/google-io-a-wake-up-call-for-the-symbian-community/ There are more comments there.

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