Yesterday I speculated that the smartphone market could devolve into a straight fight between Apple and Nokia-Microsoft. This would depend of course on people actually liking what the latter two companies have to offer. If they manage to combine the best of what they can do, the results should be impressive. But will they? Until the first phones come out, which will be October at the very soonest, we can only wait with bated breath. Windows Phone on Nokia has a lot to live up to.
Or perhaps, to live down. At a stroke, this deal effectively eliminated not only the world’s most popular smartphone OS, but also a promising alternative.
There were reasons for this. Symbian, with its pedigree stretching back to the very first handheld computers, was unwieldy when compared to the radical interface-orientation of its new rivals. To take one example, an operation as trivial as creating a screen icon for a newly installed app required digging down through menus within menus to find one called, of all things, “Standby Mode”. That just wasn’t good enough anymore.
To deliver a slick modern experience, Symbian needed to be drastically rebuilt. Nokia dithered about this, working on both an improved form (Symbian^3) and its slated successor (MeeGo) in parallel. And so ended up with one system that was serviceable but unimpressive and another that was impressive but unserviceable. Meanwhile, Apple and Google were eating their market share alive.
But there was another company that knew its smartphone OS needed to be replaced, and it pulled the trick off with surprising alacrity. This of course was Microsoft.
The case for simply adopting the software giant’s solution seems compelling now, but few predicted it. Even when former Microsoft executive Stephen Elop became Nokia’s CEO last September, rumours that he planned to move his old office furniture in with him seemed merely mischievous. Abandoning their own OS development would be a move Nokia could never take back, and so lead to almost irrevocable dependence on a company that had up till then been a bitter rival.
It was only with the recent leak of Elop’s harsh memo that the hints became impossible to ignore. In it he used the metaphor of a “burning platform” – as in, you don’t jump into the cold ocean until you realise your oil rig is on fire – to illustrate just how drastically Nokia needed to change. But the language was hardly even coded; platform in computing terms means the combination of hardware and operating system a program runs on. In fact Nokia had only recently rebranded Symbian as the “Symbian Platform”. The writing was on the wall for an OS that, with its roots in the Psion Organiser of the 80s, is almost a cultural artefact.
But it may be missed by more than just a few sentimental geeks. A mobile OS from the start, Symbian was designed with security and frugal energy demands as priorities, and decades of development have given it considerable depth. Too much perhaps, if you’re trying to find a particular facility within its maze of menus, but there is little you might want a phone to do that isn’t there. And this includes many features that are not yet in Windows Phone 7. Well-loved old ones, like tethering, swapping data cards, full multitasking, compatibility with a vast range of media formats. New ones well in advance of its rivals, like USB On-The-Go which allows you to connect a phone directly to flash drives and hard disks.
Features that may never return if, like the iPhone, it is developed primarily as a system for delivering services and digitally managed content. Unless much happens between now and the first Nokia with Windows, former Symbian users may consider it limited and disappointing. Don’t be surprised if they dub it the No-Win.