In a surprise move, Nokia announced Monday it's taking back control of the open source Symbian project. Symbian is one of the oldest mobile phone operating systems around and has been a Nokia favourite almost since the company's inception.
This intense investment in Symbian is perhaps odd because it follows an announcement, almost exactly a year ago, that Nokia no longer cared for Symbian in its high-end devices, and would aim to use its Linux-based Maemo project instead. However, this failed to happen in the flagship N8 phone, released recently, which again relied on Symbian.
This about face might have something to do with the fact Maemo has never really delivered, or escaped the gravitational pull of its Linux hobbyist roots, although its incorporation into the MeeGo project sounds interesting.
Whatever the case, it's a chaotic time for mobile phone operating systems at the moment. The smart money is on Google's Android for all but Apple phones, which use Apple's proprietary iOS system.
I can't say that I care what happens to Symbian. Quite simply, I wish it would die. This seems an excellent opportunity.
Via a series of bad buying decisions over the last decade, Symbian has been the ever-present bane of my life. It's up there with Microsoft Windows as the operating system I've tolerated but never, ever actually liked. Most times I've hated it.
Put simply, Symbian has totally failed to keep up with modern trends in mobile phones. Some products are designed to be scalable, or happen to be so by a quirk of design. Symbian is neither.
It all started back in the late 1990s with various Psion devices I bought, including the Psion 3 and Psion 5. Back then Symbian - or EPOC as it was known - was reasonably useful. Having any kind of operating system on a handheld device was remarkable, and Microsoft's mobile operating system at the time - Windows CE - was dreadful.
However, a few years later Symbian made the leap to mobile phones, receiving its new name along the way. That's when it became annoying. My two main issues were that it was slow, and it was annoying to use. One of the inner circles of hell consists of people trying to find the configuration option they want on a Symbian mobile phone. However, this being hell, the phones are glued to their hands. They can't hurl the phone at a wall in frustration, as I did on more than one occasion.
My last-but-one mobile phone was a Nokia 6680. For the two years I owned it, it displayed an annoying animated screensaver that I simply could not work out how to deactivate. Please understand that I know a thing or two about technology. I'm not an 80 year-old man who squints at a mobile phone like it's just dropped out of the sky into his hands. But I quite literally spent hours trying to find this configuration option.
I knew it was there because I had found it, once, and managed to deactivate the screensaver. However, a software update had brought back the annoying animation, at which point I had both forgotten where the "off button lived, and lost the will to live.
I realize it sounds foolish, but I kept buying Nokia phones in the belief that Symbian couldn't be as bad as it was last time. I had faith. However, my face was roundly slapped each time. My new Symbian-based phone was always as bad as ever, sometimes worse.
For the past year I've had a Nokia E71, which runs Symbian S60. On a practical level I can't fault the E71. It's packed with contemporary and useful features, such as GPS and Wi-Fi. The problem is that Symbian tries very hard to stop me either accessing or enjoying these features. It crashes. It's slow. Even simple tasks are tricky. Whenever I begin a call, nobody can hear me for the first few seconds. I've learned to wait before speaking. Sending a SMS message to somebody in my address book involves thumb-cramping amounts of button pressing.
Ultimately, this is the chief issue with Symbian as far as I'm concerned. It appears to hate me. As far as interfacing with humans is concerned, a "make-do" attitude has always prevailed. There have been some user interface improvements in the recent Symbian^3 release but it's clear Symbian is only playing catch up with Apple and Android. When any technology is playing catch-up, experience tells us that it's ultimately doomed.
My advice to Nokia is this: Retire Symbian right now. Send it to the great OS farm in the sky. Lose the weird animosity towards Android and give it a try. Your customers will love you for it.