Previewing UIQ 3

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With support for multiple form factors, different input configurations and more UIQ 3 has a lot of potential. After the first public demo at 3GSM Rafe previews UIQ 3.

UIQ is sometimes some what unkindly known as the other Symbian UI. In terms of number of devices on the market it is dwarfed by Series 60, but held against other competitors such as Linux, Palm and Microsoft it looks more respectable. At 3GSM UIQ were publicly demoing for the first time their much talked about new version...

UIQ Technology is a relatively small company, especially when compared to its competitors in the smartphone UI business. It is a subsidiary of Symbian, but it is run as a separate company, with the CEO reporting to the Symbian board. With UIQ 2.1 it had a stable and mature product. Indeed the Sony Ericsson phones running the UIQ UI have been regular award winners and are considered by many to be the most powerful smartphone available, that is in no small part due to the UIQ UI.

However with UIQ 2.1 the company only served a small sector of the market of the potential phone UI market. To expand it was going to have to look outside it's pen based tablet origins. The problem was that, given it's size, UIQ Technology would not be able to support multiple UI platforms. Therefore if it wanted to expand its product it was going to have to think carefully about how to do it. Fortunately there was already a strict design framework in place in UIQ 2.1 and the initial thought that this could be expanded upon to support multiple device types was proved ultimately proved correct. The result is the technically impressive UIQ 3 which from a single code base allows multiple form factors and configurations.

UIQ 3 has a great deal of flexibility in terms of what can be used for display and interaction. Put simply what this means is that UIQ 3 has support for three device form factors the classic UIQ tablet form factor, the smaller screened smartphone, and a landscape-screen orientation. On top of this you can use several different types of interaction keypad (softkeys), QWETRY keyboard, and pen. This means UIQ 3 can potentially support a great variety of handsets such as the one handed smartphone, the clamshell communicator, the classic tablet, the QWERTY tablet, the fat (landscape) tablet or a combination of these. Although initially there will be two shipping reference designs (the classic UIQ touch screen slate device, and the one handed smartphone device), but that doesn't mean will not see other form factors, it is just an indication of the type of device we are likely to see first.

This many form factor approach may seem quite clever, but technically the impressive feat is that they all run off the same code base. This is harder than you might think since it is necessary to have a strict framework to make this work. There is an user interface 'presentation layer' at the very top depending on the device and configuration this will format the user interface to display in a given way. In a non touch screen device control will be through softkeys, where in a touch screen device control would be through menus. This 'presentation' layer of the UI will display in the way most logical for the devices configuration. There is a unique piece of code for each configuration, but this is relatively simple consisting of instructions that effectively say 'present menus like this, dialogs like this and so on'.

The other major element updated in UIQ 3 is the branding and customisation elements collectively referred to as the Operator Configuration Package (OCP). These have been put in as a result of operator feedback. On the surface this is a considerable upgrade to the theme support in UIQ 2.1 with a great deal more of the look and feel being customisable. New features include animation anywhere in the UI, transition effects between screen views, customisation of menus (for example this could comprise a menu item titled 'Download Games' linking to an Operator store).

More significantly it gives operators a much more powerful toolset for customising the looks of the phone. It allows hardware manufacturers to more easily create operator specific phones since the changes take place in the OCP layer rather than the software layer. It is also possible to update the OCP over the air. How much control the end user has will be up to the handset manufacturers and the network.

Aside from that UIQ 3 retains the applications from UIQ 2.1. Some of them take advantages of advances in the underlying Symbian OS (version 9). But for the most part a UIQ 2.1 user will largely recognise the in built programs as little different to those which they are familiar with.

The underlying code is a single codebase. The significance of this is that everything apart from the presentation layer is the same. Both the operating system itself and its accompanying applications run on the same code whatever device configuration and form factor is employed. The same is true for third party applications a developer can write a program once and it will run on all UIQ 3 devices (although it may be necessary to optimise for specific configurations to get the best user experience for example a drawing program would not work well without pen input). An interesting comparison to draw is between UIQ 3 and the pairing of Microsoft Mobile Smartphone and Pocket PC Edition. Where Microsoft has two products UIQ has one. There are obvious economic savings in development costs, but also in support costs and running costs for manufacturers, networks and enterprises. The idea of a portfolio of devices running the same software is attractive at all levels, for the manufacturers (lower development costs), the operators (who can create a common branding), and for the user (who can switch between devices more easily). Clearly UIQ 3 is only part of a trend. The integration of Series 60 and Series 90 and the forthcoming Magneto from Microsoft follow a similar pattern, but UIQ have been working on it longer than anyone else, and at the moment seem to have the most flexible approach while maintaining the single code base.

There is no doubting that UIQ 3 has a lot of potential and that it is technically impressive. However until we see devices on the market it is going to remain potential. UIQ say there are 8 devices in development and the chances are that the majority of those are UIQ 3 devices. It is tempting to see a portfolio of UIQ 3 devices from Sony Ericsson, ranging from a T6XX style device through the K and S series and up to the PXXX series. It would make a lot of sense strategically for Sony Ericsson; Nokia have already demonstrated the effectiveness of creating Product Platforms (such as Series 40 and 60), and the potential costs saving are large. It is quite possible to see a future where there are four key user interfaces in the market Microsoft Mobile, Palm OS UI, Series 60 and UIQ each of which is capable of running on a variety of devices and configurations.

Politically within the Symbian community the UI subject is a sensitive area. It is not possible to escape the conclusion that there is going to be competition between the various Symbian UI's. The public message is that it is not a concern and that everyone is concentrated on growing the addressable market. The reality is that Nokia's control of the user platform through Series 60 is not something every handset manufacturer is happy about. UIQ then is a real alternative, Sony Ericsson and Motorola have already invested heavily in their P and A series phones respectively, and that is something that is set to continue. There's also rumours of a great deal of interest from Far East manufacturers and operators.

If there's one thing to take away about UIQ 3 it is that it has the potential to become a major mobile platform competing with Microsoft Mobile, Series 60 and others. However until UIQ 3 devices are announced and they get into the hand of users it is difficult to tell just what the impact might be.