The Symbian Foundation Strikes Back - interview with Lee Williams

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After widespread speculation on many tech blogs that Symbian's future is bleak, I visited Lee Williams, Executive Director of the Symbian Foundation, to put AAS and Phones Show reader /viewer questions to him directly. Has the death of Symbian been "greatly exaggerated"?

(A shorter video version of this interview appears in The Phones Show 97)

Note that this is a verbatim transcription of the interview, not a crafted press release, so bear with both interviewer and interviewee!

Lee Williams

Steve Litchfield: I last caught up with you six months ago. How has the development of the Open Source OS been coming (I noted the kernel release) and are you ahead of schedule?

Lee Williams: Yes, we're definitely ahead of schedule and we're proud of it. Some teams have been working very hard to get a full distribution migrated completely to EPL, which is the open source license we leverage. So, the microkernel was released, yes, more than that we're ahead of schedule in terms of the number of packages that we're moving over to that EPL. So, I think by Mobile World Congress you'll hear some exciting announcements from us in this regard.

SL: So Symbian^3 and ^4 are still on track?

LW: That's correct. Well on track, there are some 460+ features and new levels of functionality being checked into the source systems.

SL: Is it fair to say that we're unlikely to see any explicit Symbian^2-powered phones come to market? I note that much of ^2 is cross-ported to many S60 5th Edition phones already? 

LW: You will definitely see Symbian^2 products out there in the marketplace. The Symbian^2 and Symbian^3 code lines are very similar to each other, but as you may know as well, there are some dramatic differences and new check-ins coming in Symbian^3, so even beyond the back-porting, you'll see some new things in there by the time Symbian^3 products get out there. A new graphics architecture, and so forth.

SL: I see ScreenPlay and FreeWay have been renamed?

LW: They have! We take a different marketing approach to both how we label things and we'll continue a difference in strategy versus what Symbian UK Ltd. was doing.

SL: For seasoned tech industry watchers, the Symbian Foundation seems to have taken a bit of a battering in recent weeks, with reports that it was being "phased out" by Nokia and "dropped" by Samsung. How much truth is there in these and what has been your reaction to the over-eager predicted demise of your organisation?

LW: There's absolutely no truth in these. You know, we have a tremendous amount of momentum, that's the fact. You need look no further than the Qualcomm announcements, some great projects underway with Qualcomm in this regard that open up whole new avenues for us. Same with Fujitsu, the Japanese companies are very interested in being global with their product initiatives, so not restricting the great things they do with Symbian to the Japanese marketplace.

When you look at what Nokia's doing, I think it has been crystal clear on both their level of dependency of and their excitement of what I'll call the 'technology legs' behind the Symbian platform. They continue to invest heavily. If you were to look at a level of effort as an investment, you'd see that Nokia and others are investing more than they were last year or the year before, into product development efforts.

I think things have been greatly overblown in the press and marketplace, the press loves a sensationalist story from time to time... [indicates to me] with all due respect....

SL: Well, I hope I don't bash Symbian too much...

LW: [laughs] I've never seen any bashing, just constructive comments! But I also think Kai Oistamo and Olli-Pekka Kalasvuo have come out recently and have been even more clear that the future of smartphones for the masses, for the world, and where the real growth opportunity lies, is with the Symbian platform. So I think you'll continue to see and hear announcements about those things as we move fully to open source.

SL: I think people like bashing the old guard, they want in with the new. What they're not appreciating, I think, is that the Symbian Foundation is a re-invention and is effectively the new guard as well as the old guard...

LW: That's correct, you've nailed it, and that's exactly what we're doing with our movement, that's why I call it a movement. It's a movement of new guard to take a de facto technology standard in completely new directions. And we've only scratched the surface of what consumers will see in terms of new products and new services that are the result of us doing these things.

SL: How can the Symbian Foundation UI handle the trade off between function rich devices in the high/mid-tier - and low-tier devices where simplicity become more important? - is this something Symbian should be addressing?

LW: Yes, I think we should address it. Usability is a very important focus point for us. We've hired some of the industry's best to come in and help lead our UI councils and to provide some intellectual leadership, capability and capacity for those out there who are building Symbian products. This is having a direct influence on how we prioritise and whether we gain contributions from other companies that help us improve that UI and improve the overall usability. 

I actually don't think we have a problem with our UI today at all, I don't think it's legacy, I think those are naive views, shared by some in the industry. What we have is the world's best and most widely used 'scroll and select' or 'focussed' UI, we have that in the products today. The challenge for us is that we're going to direct UI manipulation paradigms, we're leveraging from a developer standpoint what are called 'declarative' UI concepts and technologies. We're incorporating the Qt core technologies, which are very advanced, into the system. When you combine all of that focus on usability and the strength of the talent we have dedicated to this in the member companies and in the Foundation itself, I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised by what we're able to do with it.

You see some good examples today in the Satio, you see some very good examples of that today in some of the Nokia products that have come out, like the X6, and others, and we're just going to keep marching on.

SL: Do the Symbian Foundation engineers participate in QA for devices in development? (And do they get prototypes from the manufacturers for testing, etc?)

LW: They do get prototypes from the manufacturers, we're very active in trying to keep a good flow of devices and prototypes and products into the business.

SL: Do you feed back bug reports to the manufacturers?

LW: We do. More than that, myself and even other members of the leadership team and others in the business are regularly giving feedback. You have to keep in mind that the staff at the Foundation are former senior product managers, architects, and others from these respective member companies throughout the industry. We have a very diversified staff in this way, so their input is often sought, it's not as if we have to bang down a door. Simple emails, in our defect tracking systems, we have a pretty regular flow of feedback - all the way up to the mechanics and designs of the products themselves. 

SL: And presumably, as you're a more open organisation now, if you have a comment to make, you're not bound by political restrictions on what you're allowed to say to company A or company B, you can just be honest?

LW: That's absolutely correct. More than that, we practise a level of transparency that we hope others emulate. We believe in the overall health of the Symbian ecosystem and actually try to discourage others from not sharing information about improvements, even between the member companies themselves.

SL: Is Symbian is worried about how fast Android is growing - Symbian Foundation has a head start but is it about to get overtaken?

LW: Oh, we're not worried at all. I wouldn't be concerned about whether or not we can be overtaken, that's not what we focus on, we don't always focus on our market share, and so forth. Where we do have issues is that we look at the health of our ecosystem, we focus on making sure companies can provide a definitive return on their investments. And when you compare our ecosystem and opportunity to what is available in an Android-based ecosystem, I think it's clear you have a better opportunity with us, and that will remain the case for some time.

SL: Given that Nokia is going to push Symbian to more mass market, mid-tier devices, is the Symbian Foundation ever frustrated that the OS sometimes receives criticism for being on underpowered hardware?

LW: I'm not frustrated by that at all, I think it shows the strength of the Symbian system. I think a lot of the issues people run into with the products are usability issues, really not performance issues. When you try to filter the commentary, and so forth, and look at where there are real problems, they have to do with usability, they have to do with too many requirements on taps or inputs or not getting enough responsiveness or any indication that something is happening in the system. 

So, I'm not frustrated by the hardware issues whatsoever. I'm also confident that the Symbian platform has 'legs' in the high end of the market place and will continue to. I think it will surprise people, especially some of the products that are coming with Symbian^3 and Symbian^4.

SL: It's just frustrating that with the current Symbian platform, high end gaming is not really possible because of hardware restrictions. Now devices like the Samsung i8910 HD and Sony Ericsson Satio are hopefully the start of a new vanguard of potential for high end gaming?

LW: Yes, I think where people are focussed is still producing products that make really good phone calls. I think people underestimate the level of effort that goes into, as an example, ensuring you have a solid antenna. Frequencies and ratios and dealing with all the network interfaces and interference issues on the products. So, I continue to look at something like an iPhone, with a great big display, perfect for gaming, good for some Internet browsing - and it also makes phone calls on some operator networks from time to time...

SL: ... in some areas...

LW: Yeah, in some areas... But there's a difference. When you look at the Symbian products, it's the other way around. And so, will gaming become more important, moving forward? It certainly will, when you get a lot of those Symbian products out there with that same big display and you get that hardware accelerated graphics system in there, naturally games are going to come with it.

SL: I keep recommending people buy a top end Symbian smartphone, such as an E72, and an iPod Touch. Between the two you've got the best of both worlds?

LW: It really is. I just ran into a venture capitalist on the plane when I was travelling back from the States (for Thanksgiving) and that was his set up. "I really like the rig", I told him! He said that he couldn't do business on an iPhone, he said he couldn't do business on a Blackberry, he just got too frustrated, and that was his exact setup, an iPod Touch with a Nokia E71 and now and E72. So.... I think a lot of people have come to the same conclusion!

SL: You've recently had the first non-Nokia contribution to the platform, CalDAV support - What is Symbian doing to encourage more non-Nokia contributions?

LW: We're doing an awful lot. In fact, members of the leadership team are measured by their performance against certain percentages or targets of packages that will be non-Nokia contributions. More than that, this is what's different between us and a lot of other open source initiatives or a lot of other foundations out there - we're on the phones, we're on email, we're in meetings, we're travelling the world, seeking contributions, sharing ideas with others, forming alliances with teams, so that they can introduce these types of developments to the platform. 

If we keep up the momentum here, it will be like a snowball rolling downhill, you'll start to see some things in the platform that no one company could have done or contributed on their own.

SL: How about new directions for Symbian devices? What about Sat-nav appliances or applications in the medical sphere? Is this off the wall?

LW: No, I don't think it's off the wall at all. If you have ARM chips, if you need a nice discrete, low power, high performance microkernel in a system, with RF capabilities needed, I say go for it. I will say though that it's not something in the Foundation that we're directly focussed on. We attend meetings on a regular basis where we help others brainstorm, we help build business cases for these types of products, and so I'm confident that eventually you'll start to see them in the market place.

SL: Finally, what devices are you actively using day to day?

LW: This E72, I'm really enjoying, it's a great improvement with the new 5 megapixel camera. And I also have a Satio. I typically use a device for a week or two and then move onto another prototype, but the Satio really has my attention. The 12 megapixel camera, the graphics features, and all the multitasking capability, is here on that TI platform, so I've been very happy with it. 

SL: Thanks, Lee!

Lee Williams