Whatever happened to EPOC?

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Steve Litchfield enthuses over his Nokia 9500 Communicator and looks back at its Psion roots.

So there I was having had a call from a friend on her new mobile, which my 9500 obviously hadn't recognised, just displaying her number. After hanging up, I wondered "What's the easiest way of adding this (12 digit) number to her entry in Contacts?". The standard Series 80 'Log' brought up the one line summary of the call, so I tried pressing 'Enter' on it. Up pops the number in larger type, with a helpful command button offering to 'Add to Contacts'.

At this point, I thought 'It's going to offer me a new contact entry and I'll have to copy and paste the number into the right one...' But no, up pops my full list of contacts (with the option of a new card if I wanted it), and adding the new mobile number to my friend's entry took all of two key presses. Now, this may not seem like rocket science to you, but it shows that a lot of thought has been put into the operating system and interface, to aid people in real world.

Another example. Every now and then, an application crashes (sometimes even one of the built-ins, such as Messaging), with a horrible KERN-EXEC message splashed on the screen. Back on your PC, even with Windows XP, (or Palm or Pocket PC) you'd think 'S***, nothing's going to work properly now and all my apps are at risk until I reboot.' With Symbian OS, you just keep on going, even restarting the application that crashed and finding that no data has been lost and that everything works perfectly again. Everything. Nothing else in the OS misses a beat. Now that's what you call an Operating System.

EPOC to EPOC! ER5 to ER6

Symbian OS evolved, of course, from Psion's EPOC, created in the mid 1990s, which pioneered (long before Windows XP) the use of proper multitasking on a consumer machine, and which was used on the best-selling Series 5mx palmtop, which is still very much in demand today, mainly on the second-hand market. In fact, even the original Series 3 was fully multi-tasking, back in 1991, which just goes to show how much experience the boys at Symbian have in this sort of thing...

But how exactly did we get from the Psion 5mx to the Nokia Communicator? The devices are different enough that it's worth trying to think our way into the development process, while at the same time recognising that (in this imperfect world, where noone ever really gets exactly what they want) the Nokia Communicator is still the natural current-day successor to the famous Psion palmtop series.

From Nokia's point of view, they wanted a successor to their established GEOS-based 9100 series Communicator, which had sold surprisingly well, and they didn't want to change the magic formula too much. Which meant sticking with a robust, non-touch-sensitive display and using four programmable command buttons to the right of the display instead. First impressions from Psion owners were of sacrilege - having added stylus-support into EPOC for the Series 5 range, here was Nokia ripping it all out of the OS for its new Communicator. But, with four years of 9210 (and now 9500) success behind us, it's debatable how much extra a touch-screen would have added. On the Psion, the main functions of the stylus were for selecting text, launching applications and doodling in Sketch. The first two are trivial to accomplish with hardware keys and the last isn't, to be honest, that much of a loss. Having used a Psion Series 5 or 5mx between 1997 and 2000, I can't honestly remember a single useful thing I did with Sketch. And no, inserting 'fun' icons into Agenda entries doesn't count as useful.

Also initially missing from EPOC Release 6, as featured on the Nokia 9210, was a version of Psion's hugely popular Data application. This was far more of a show stopper for Psion-owning would-be-upgraders. I'm guessing that Nokia's research department esimated that a lot of their target market didn't need a database and that, a couple of years later when enough people had demanded one, it was just too late to do much about it - the core OS had moved on and it would have taken too much work to haul the old EPOC Release 5 Data code along. Plus, by then, third parties had stepped into the breach and Nokia could simply say 'Go buy Power Data (or whatever)' - much simpler and cheaper. Interestingly, with the launch of YData, Communicator owners can now use something akin to Data for the first time, making the 9500 even more of a logical move for old Psioneers.

Another big omission (from EPOC) for the 9210 was Program, the DIY program builder that used the BASIC-like OPL language which had underpinned the Psion phenomenon in the 1990s. Thanks to Rick Andrews and other familiar names from these parts, this was Open Sourced and has been available for a couple of years now, with the result that many of the old favourite Psion applications have been tweaked and recompiled for the Communicator, yet again emphasising the commonality of the two platforms.

One big, but unavoidable, difference between a 1999 Psion and a 2003 Nokia Communicator is the lack of character compatibility, but the change to Unicode gave Symbian OS huge future compatibility and the jump had to happen at some stage. For most practical purposes, though, PIM and application data can be easily synced/massaged into Unicode format and it's rarely a problem.

The final remaining objection to the modern Series 80 Communicator was the seemingly unintelligent use of fonts and space in Contacts, Messaging and Calendar. Accusers have a point here, although there are some mitigating factors. Nokia/Symbian had 40 less pixels to play with vertically (around 20%) and they also wanted to present information in bigger and bolder fashion since these devices were for use on the move - a departure from the typical image of a Psion power-user sitting stationary at their desk, squinting at relatively tiny, spidery fonts. Most observers reckon Nokia went too far in the enlarging process, but the result is still very useable and at least noone can complain that they can't read the screen. Perhaps a firmware update increasing the range of in-application zooming might help here...

One thing that's often overlooked when comparing the different software catalogs is that many functions which used to require add-on software for EPOC are now built-in. For example, zip management, PDF, image, sound and video viewers, Post-It notes, file management, nested application launching, the list goes on... There's simply not as much need for add-ons as there used to be, which is why the Series 80 catalog is quite a bit smaller than the old Psion one...

Clutch of Series 80 apps

With the release of TomTom MOBILE 5 for the 9500 (review here very, very soon), this update of THE killer application for the Psion Series 5 will start to wow people in the same way as Street Planner did back in 1998. Yes there are still a few software holes to fill up, but to a large extent I can now do on my Nokia 9500 everything I used to do on my Psion Series 5mx, but with all the modern trappings as well: colour screen, GPRS and voice telephony, wireless networking (usually for free, watch this space for a separate article on '9500 war driving'!), stereo digital playback, and much, much more. And the underlying Operating System has the same crash-proof resilience as my old Psion, with the huge 32MB RAM in the 9500 meaning that it's quite practical to keep dozens (count 'em) of applications and documents open at the same time, switching to them in an instant.

The 9500 Communicator isn't perfect. Nothing is. But I daresay I'm not alone in thinking that Nokia and Symbian haven't done a bad job under the circumstances to try and keep the best of the old while embracing the best of the new.

Steve Litchfield
AAS & http://3lib.ukonline.co.uk/