Another case for Windows Phone over Symbian? Not necessarily...

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Noted Nokia blogger, Ricky Cadden, has posted over at Mobile R’n’R with his take on why Nokia made the right decision going with Windows Phone for 2012 and onwards, rather than continuing to push forward with Symbian. Whether you agree with him or not, it’s a good read with reasoned arguments, sticking to the facts without speculating too much. Read on for choice quotes and my own somewhat sceptical commentary....

Ricky bases his post on premise that:

“It is going to be easier for Nokia and Microsoft to add features to Windows Phone 7 than it would be for Nokia to update and beautify the Symbian operating system.”

This is a debate that can run and run, although we really could do with hearing the opinions of actual Symbian engineers for the final word.

Espousing the argument that Symbian is old, he writes:

“The Symbian platform is old – it was originally developed in the 1990s, ironically as a way for Nokia and other partners to avoid licensing Microsoft’s new Windows Mobile platform. The entire operating system, down to its core components, is over 10 years old, going on 15. That’s old from a software standpoint, and downright ancient from a mobile operating system perspective.

The problem with this, then, is that along the way, the operating system has been updated to support various new features – a webkit based browser, the ‘always-on’ connectivity, high-resolution cameras and displays, and other more modern smartphone features. These additions have been tacked onto the older core, and the result is a monstrous amount of code, some of it only barely hanging together by a thread. Sure, the homescreens and icons have been updated, but as even the most ardent Symbian fanboys can attest, it’s still pretty much the same when you dig down into the menus and layout and such.”

Again, this is something I’d like to hear come from a Symbian engineer, and Ricky doesn’t give any source links for readers to follow up these arguments. My own understanding of Symbian^3 was that the operating system core had been completely rewritten, which would undermine the basis of the quote above.

I would also debate that the underlying menu structure remained the same in Symbian^3 purely because of the underlying operating system. Rather, Nokia has stuck to evolutionary steps of their touch UI because, as Marko Ahtisaari has said, “there is a lot of muscle memory out there”. Having been the largest selling smartphone platform in the world, many people were familiar with Nokia’s touch UI (regardless of whether one liked it not), and so alienating that user base was understandably a sensitive issue.

Symbian^3 on the N8

Moving on to the benefits of Windows Phone being the new kid on the block, Ricky writes:

“Unfortunately, because it is still technically at v1.0, the Windows Phone platform is not nearly as feature-complete as Symbian is. Glaring omissions include copy/paste, multitasking, a decent webkit-based browser, Internet tethering, and other modern niceties. This is similar to how both iOS and Android started out, and look how well they’ve developed over the past 2 years. Because the core systems do not contain any legacy code, these platforms are much more competitive and easier to update from a manufacturer’s standpoint.
So, Symbian lovers regard Windows Phone 7 as the most beautiful dumbphone operating system they’ve ever seen. They can’t begin to fathom how Nokia thinks this is a good idea, to replace the feature-rich Symbian platform with the borderline-dumbphone Windows Phone platform. They’re not looking at the big picture.”

These are both fair points, Windows Phone is currently lacking lots of what we Symbian users would see as basic bread and butter functions. However, it would be strange to assume this situation won’t improve, especially with Nokia’s partnership. The rate at which this will improve is yet to be seen though, Microsoft don’t have an outstanding track record for rapid development, but they have been making reasonable progress with Windows Phone. It is truly too early to tell. Although, Arstechnica reports that Windows Phone updates are coming soon.

“With Windows Phone, Nokia gets a platform that has already been rewritten from the ground up, and they’re getting in on it early enough that they will be able to help guide its future. While they have essentially become just another OEM, they still at least have a chance at helping influence the future of the platform, whereas with Android, they wouldn’t have had that opportunity. Windows Phone already has the baseline of modernization that Nokia needed Symbian to have.”

These are points which I am personally still coming to terms with. If (and only if) you believe the rats nest argument about the Symbian source code, then the modernisation argument holds. It’s true that Nokia negotiated terms so that they can influence development of Windows Phone and customise it on their own handsets. Again, we will have to let time tell how much of a difference this will make in practice. Realistically, we’re unlikely to see what influence Nokia ultimately has over Windows Phone development as it is closed source and probably subject to non-disclosure agreements (NDA’s).

The widely seen concept images of Windows Phone based devices from Nokia

I am still struggling with the argument that Nokia’s potential to differentiate in the Android market was less than that in the Windows Phone market. Android is an open source platform, and anyone can do anything they like with it. The only limitation being that OEM’s have to abide by certain conditions if they want to qualify for the full Google experience. However, this would be completely inappropriate for Nokia, who could and would have provided their own ecosystem.

I do also acknowledge the economic issue (not covered in Ricky's post) that commodotisation was a risk. As Android grows, profit margins for OEM's will shrink. Meanwhile, Apple still enjoys huge margins on their products. It does seem that Nokia are betting that margins in the Windows Phone hardware market will be greater than in the Android hardware market. Again, I'd like to see some figures supporting this.

Ricky concludes on Windows Phone by saying:

“It has a very consistent (albeit limiting) user experience. It’s absolutely gorgeous, with little wasted space and a welcome absence of multi-layered menus and submenus.”

Statements such as 'absolutely gorgeous' are always going to be subjective. However, while Ricky has been testing Windows Phone, and I haven’t (yet); I have to say, based on videos and screenshots I’ve seen, I would take issue with his point. Windows Phone seems to have a UI design that closely resembles a glossy fashion magazine. As such, there is a lot of wasted space, with application headings taking up a huge fraction of the screen area. It’s an interesting approach and may make the UI more accessible to those who are more interested in fashion than technology. Personally, this does not appeal to me, but hopefully Windows Phone 8 may take a hint from Symbian and have a theme feature. It’s a long shot, but we can hope ... right?

The trick for Nokia to get this transition right is, as Ricky points out in his post, the execution of its plans. Nokia has a long history of announcing things too far in advance, rather than keeping things hush-hush until they’re ready to roll. Yes, the Microsoft partnership was an awfully big secret to keep. However, I personally wish that they’d been able to get a Windows Phone device on the market much sooner after the announcement than it’s looking like they will.

And that Nokia had not burned so many of its Symbian bridges on Friday, knowing the timescales involved....


David Gilson for All About Symbian, 15th February 2011.