Belle's Hell

We’re talking about Finnish engineering, so here’s a picture of Helsinki’s central metro station

All right, I’ve been in Finland for well over a week and so far I’ve avoided the N-word. The time has come, we have to face up to this.

Nokia – are they completely buggered?

You wouldn’t think so to look around here. There are Nokias everywhere. After that, the iPhone and maybe Blackberries. Though Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S III is being advertised on every vertical surface, I haven’t seen one in the wild – don’t see many Android phones at all.

Well, why use an imitation of the iPhone when you have the thing the iPhone imitated? Nokia were making smartphones years before Apple after all. And even today their Symbian operating system is in many ways…

No, I can’t do it. Much as I like the company, much as I like Finland, much as Symbian was once a really great operating system for smartphones, Nokia lost it there. It might have been said a year or so ago that they were at a crossroads. Today, it would be charitable to say they’re on a roundabout. Nokia now make phones with five different operating systems.

There’s Maemo/MeeGo. OK, that one we can pretty much write off as a noble experiment. There are S30 and S40, the systems for low- and mid-price phones respectively. There’s Windows Phone, the one Nokia is betting on to restore it to the leading edge of phone technology. And then, we have Symbian.

Poor Symbian.

Well actually we don’t, not anymore. The company clearly considers the name a liability, so Symbian^3 Anna (releases now have girls’ names) was superseded earlier this year by what’s known simply as Nokia Belle.

I just upgraded a friend’s phone to this latest (last?) iteration of the world’s first real smartphone OS. Aside from it coming with free Angry Birds, we hoped that it would be nicer to use than Anna. Despite being a Finn, my friend had never had a Symbian phone before and she thoroughly disliked it. Compared to her previous S60 one it just seemed needlessly complex.

An assessment I agree with – I’ve never understood why they felt that the controls had to be buried in folders within folders, divided into often confusing categories. You can spend ages on a Symbian phone trying to find how to change the ring tone, on the way passing all sorts of settings and features you never knew you needed – because you probably don’t. A little adventure really, but it also speaks volumes about the strengths and weaknesses of Symbian. It is incredibly mature, and over its twenty-odd years of development – if you trace back to its origins on the PDAs made by British company Psion – has accumulated a huge range of capabilities. But also, much now-unnecessary complexity.

For what it’s worth, Belle is an improvement. What Nokia have done – showing signs of desperation – is make it look and work a lot more like Android, even copying the ‘tray’ that slides down to display notifications and major settings. Gone are the layers of folders. But for people like my friend who upgrade to Belle it just makes the unfamiliar even more unfamiliar. And for new buyers, a resemblance to Android is hardly enough. If Symbian had been as close as this a couple of years ago, it might now have the momentum to rival Android for apps. But it appears inevitable that it will be phased out completely in the next couple of years – not just in name.

So is there any reason to choose a Symbian/Belle phone now?

Yes. The fact that it was designed from the start for the limited hardware of portable devices – indeed, the far more limited hardware of an earlier generation – means that to this day nothing can compete with a Symbian phone in terms of battery life. Plus it runs far better on low-end hardware than Android does. So if you need smartphone functionality and you don’t want to pay very much, seriously consider a cheap Nokia smartphone over a cheap Android such as Samsung’s dreadful Galaxy Y. In the year or two you might have it, that could add up to a couple of hundred fewer times you need to find a charger.

It’s sad perhaps that they won’t be keeping Symbian on just to fight that corner, but now is the time for Nokia to concentrate. They have S40 for good cheap “dumb” phones and, in Windows Phone 8, a smartphone OS that looks like it genuinely can compete with Apple and Google. Nokia I think will be all right – indeed, great again one day. It’s just sad that they have to sacrifice so much independence, and so much history.

Sayonara, Symbian.

And here’s a Finnish bridge

Microsoft Makes Its Move

Today, the final piece of Microsoft’s strategy slotted into place. They announced Windows Phone 8, their new OS for phones. It’ll still have that pretty tiled “Metro” interface, but to the consternation of those few people currently developing apps for Windows Phone 7, just about everything else is changed utterly. We’ll see why later.

And that’s not even the most unexpected part of the new strategy. Yesterday they tore up the playbook and actually made a thing. Of course the software giant has done hardware before, almost from the start indeed. They produced their own mice to make sure the peripheral vital to Windows would be standardised and cheap. There was the highly successful Xbox, and the highly unsuccessful Zune. But this is the first time Microsoft has made their own… Laptop? Tablet?

A little from column A and a little from column B. Microsoft have decided, reasonably I think, that somewhere between the tablet and the ultra-light notebook there’s a product waiting to happen. And they call it Surface.

Which is a little confusing, because up till now Microsoft Surface was an intelligent multi-user tabletop wholly unrelated to this device (and now renamed PixelSense). Maybe they envisage integrating the two technologies at some future date, but really it seems they decided Surface was too cool a name for anything except their coolest product. The nerds.

Even more confusingly, Surface comes in two versions. Both are slim 10.6″ tablets. Both have a light and attractive magnesium alloy chassis. Both have a neat kickstand that props it at a good viewing angle. Both can use intelligent covers that attach with magnets. Shades of the iPad’s Smart Cover perhaps, but these are also keyboards, instantly transforming tablet into laptop. They come in a thin touch version and a slightly thicker one with some key travel, and both can be used with either Surface model.

So how then do they differ? In a word, fundamentally. The slightly more svelte of the two uses a RISC processor from ARM, like just about every tablet or smartphone on the market, and runs only “Metro” apps. It does have a desktop, but only as an environment for editing multiple documents with a built-in, touch-friendly version of Office. No conventional desktop software runs on this, so it is very much to the PC as the iPad is to the Mac. And much as the the iPad has a special, much-reduced version of OS X called iOS, so the Surface has Windows RT, a stripped-down variant so named because it only runs apps written for WinRT.

That should make the confusion complete… I’ll go over this again because it’s going to come up a lot in the next few years and you won’t regret getting it straight now: Windows RT, Microsoft’s operating system for ARM processors, is called that because it only runs WinRT.

So what the hell is WinRT? It’s the new Windows “runtime”, a programming environment providing simplified access to the hardware’s resources – memory, camera, sensors, network and so on. Apps are created to run in this environment.

OK, what about the other model, sometimes referred to as Surface Pro? It looks very similar to the basic version. The only different dimension is thickness – the Pro has an extra 4.2mm to accommodate (among other things) an Intel Core i5 processor, just like you’d find on a good laptop or desktop PC. So it has a perfectly normal version of Windows 8 for its operating system and can run all traditional Windows programs. In many ways this incarnation of Surface is simply a reboot of the slate-style Tablet PC, such as those made by Motion.

Except of course that it also has WinRT, and so can run just the same apps as the ARM version in just the same Metro touch interface. This then is the key idea: WinRT works on both the Intel hardware architecture and on ARM. The same apps will run on tablets, laptops and desktops, no matter who makes the chips.

So have you guessed? Yes, Windows Phone 8 also has WinRT. That’s why they had to rebuild it from the ground up. Before, the phone and desktop versions of Windows had been pretty much completely incompatible. From this on they will share a lot in common. The very same apps – with suitable adjustment for screen size, etc. – will run on phones as well now.

But wait, there’s more!

Another of Microsoft’s recent flurry of announcements was SmartGlass, which helps integrate tablets and phones with the Xbox and so with your TV. The possibilities are intriguing, especially if – as I think is a completely safe prediction – WinRT comes to the Xbox as well. No one else can offer a single platform for developers like that – phones, tablets, laptops, desktops and perhaps game consoles, all running the same apps. For the first time in years, Microsoft look like a company with a vision.

The Firefox Phone

Remember when people just, you know, made phones? That was so crazy. Now you don’t stand a chance unless you have a whole “ecosystem” of app developers, electronics companies, service providers, accessory makers and so on.

Incompatible systems, locked in a death match; the fewer there are after all, the more profitable they will be. We’ve already seen promising contenders like Symbian, WebOS and MeeGo fall away, Blackberry and even Windows Phone have question marks over them. So why is an organisation like Mozilla, the not-for-profit foundation best known for the excellent Firefox browser, entering this ring?

Well they have one advantage over the others, and I just mentioned it: They don’t have to make a profit. They don’t need the support of a mutually beneficial ecosystem. But if they don’t want the money, why do it at all? There’s one good reason: To preserve and protect the Web. As a foundation set up to create a free, open Web browser back in the days when it looked like Microsoft was going to take it all, they could be said to have a legitimate interest here.

Only this time, they have to save the Web from Apple.

Look at Apple’s business model. To a large extent it consists of taking things that the Web could deliver for free and offering them – via an app – as a service you pay for. This is especially attractive to publishers and others who are looking to control distribution, holding out hope for a future where people will need certain apps running on certain devices to access their content. It’s not hard to see a danger here of splitting the Web into proprietary channels.

Gecko is the “engine” of Firefox (and other related browsers), the program that turns the HTML, CSS and JavaScript that pages are written in into the visual, interactive experience on your screen. The idea is simple but unexpected: Why not write the whole phone in these languages? Compare this to Google’s system; Android has a little Linux for the fundamentals, then on top of that it runs a Java engine called Dalvik. So the interface and the apps of Android – including the browser – are all written in this version of Java.

B2G also has a little Linux, but running right on top of that is the browser (Gecko). Everything else then, from the interface to the Web pages it brings you, is in HTML/CSS/JavaScript. It’s a drastic simplification. Writing apps for it will be like – indeed, will be – Web development.

Unlike the average Web browser today though, B2G will have greatly-heightened awareness of the hardware it is running on, and this will allow app-like integration between the device and online data. Better still though, it can integrate them via the Web. A sufficiently “intelligent” page would be able to accept all the different kinds of input data your phone can provide. To take a fairly obvious example, an icon on Facebook could launch your camera and upload an image seamlessly.

One big question remains: If nothing is locked-in, if no one can make money by selling apps and services, who is going to make and sell the hardware? Surely not the big two or three who almost have the market sewn up between them. The answer might be: Everybody else. With B2G freely available, maybe people can just… make phones.