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The Forgotten Mobile Platform February 5, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms.
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Symbian has announced that its source code has been placed into the public domain.  This is no surprise, as it was a move announced by Nokia in 2008.  For those not following mobile platforms, Symbian was probably the first multi-vendor effort (come to think of it, maybe the only multi-vendor effort) to create a mobile platform for a variety of phones.  While Nokia has bought out the Symbian consortium, it is adopting the practice of enabling community development of the code base.

Symbian has been around for about a decade.  At one point, early in the decade, I had some hope that it would become the platform of choice for the jumpstart of the mobile application era.  Alas, it was not to be.

It turns out that Symbian is on a wide variety of phones, though few in the U.S.  And the hot phone makers of today (Apple, RIM, Palm, and Google, not necessarily in that order) don’t use Symbian.  The obvious conclusion is that Symbian, with a fairly sophisticated 32-bit operating system but conceived and created in an era prior to modern smartphones, isn’t up to the task of unseating newer entries.

I’ve not spent enough time with the various operating systems to offer this as a technical opinion, so let’s call it an assumption.  A part of that assumption is based on the pure popularity of to above-mentioned leaders in this space.  Another part is based on the relative anonymity of Symbian.  Today’s mobile operating systems are becoming just as highly publicized as their desktop counterparts, and as highly associated with the actual hardware.

Android is also open source, but developed entirely by Google, rather than by an open source community.  While Symbian promotes to its community as the preferred way of developing a mobile platform, the fact of the matter is that the tight relationship between Android and Google has enables some of Google’s cachet to rub off on its progeny.

And perhaps that is the direction mobile computing is going – the building of a strong relationship between device and operating system.  Palm, RIM, and Apple have both hardware and software, and have largely succeeded in promoting that relationship.  Google now has its own phone, Nexus One, building that same relationship.

And if I didn’t mention Microsoft Windows Mobile in this discussion, it’s because the conclusion of its irrelevancy is already a foregone one.  Despite the recent release of Windows Mobile 7, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason for phone makers to adopt it, especially given Microsoft’s licensing policies and the inability to customize the operating system.  And Microsoft has never attempted to build a strong relationship with devices that have adopted it.  The company is likely now regretting that oversight.

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