A few thoughts on Symbian and the Nokia N97

31. March 2010 at 21:59

A few thoughts on symbian header

At the moment I am an owner of a Nokia N97. I have been a Nokia user for many years and among other handsets, I owned an N95 with which I was very pleased actually. When I received the N97, I felt the N97 to be an improvement nevertheless.

Sadly, my N97 has continuous stability problems and it just doesn’t seem to work, although it was in repair two times now. This seems not to be a general N97-issue. In this particular case, there seems to be a hardware defect somewhere deep inside the device and the Nokia Care Point just isn’t able to locate it.

I took this for a reason to take a look around and check out the hot and new devices on the market:

Among others, I recognized the new HTC Desire, the newest representative of the Android based Smartphones which is equipped with Android 2,1 plus HTC Sense, which is a significant refinement. So, it’s kind of a non-labeled and improved version of the Google Nexus One, which HTC is the manufacturer of, too.

As a Symbian-sympathizer, I just ignored Googles operating system so far. From time to time I risked an envious look on the N900 with the very good Maemo UI and on the almost all-present iPhone, though.

That’s why I was quite a little shocked, when I saw the Videos of the new Android 2.1 on YouTube. Viewed from an objective perspective, one must admit that when it comes to mobile computing, Symbian S60 5th just get’s owned in each discipline compared to Android 2,1.

To explain myself, first of all I’ll write down the facts which I thought till this point made Symbian kind of unique in the mobile World.

Symbian has:

  1. real multitasking capabilities
  2. copy and paste
  3. personalization capabilities
  4. folder support
  5. supports many different hardware components
  6. in case of the N97: home screen widgets

Compared to the iPhone, these arguments are quite relevant. Compared to Android on the other hand, these arguments were destroyed piece by piece. Android indeed does all that – and it does it better.

With Android 2.1, you can personalize your mobile phone much more than you can do on a Symbian device. The Home Screen for example has a much higher resolution, despite the fact, that there are seven of them! Widgets are supported, however these may take much more room than on the N97 if necessary and the functions go far beyond those Widgets you get in Symbian^2. Everything on the Home Screens can be put in place quite freely(similar to the N900) . The OS offers multitasking capabilities just like Symbian does, it offers copy and paste, too, and – in case of the “HTC Desire” – it offers a set of hardware, Symbian-users today can only dream of.

This leads me to another point: It becomes more and more obvious that Symbian was downgraded to a midlevel OS by the competitors and accordingly the Symbian based phones are not equipped with high end hardware components by the manufacturers.

Sadly, it was Nokia itself setting this trend by the heavily underpowered N97. The HTC Desire now has a 1Ghz Snapdragon processor and 576MB RAM. In both cases – at present – this is peak at the smartphone-market. The N900 is advertised to have 1GB RAM, actually it features “just” 256 megabyte „real“ RAM. This is well compensated by 768 megabyte of virtual memory, though.

So let’s go a bit in detail and take a look on some Symbian features compared to Android:

With your N97, you can place a tiny little widget for Facebook on your home screen, but this widget will just be fed by – you guess it – Facebook. It’s nothing more than an index, too, and it shows only the latest three status updates of your friends or your own status and if there are any requests. This doesn’t even happen at one time, so you see, this is pretty simple and does not do that much, aside from eating resources. In addition to that, the Facebook app that opens when you click on the widget is ok. It took Nokia about half a year to manage it to scroll in an acceptable way, but compared to “Gravity”, it’s still bulky and there are still some bugs, too. A big letdown is the lack of notifications, so the Facebook touch site on the internet is the better choice, which runs fairly good on the Symbian browser. If you want to spend the 10 bucks, you can get the fantastic “Gravity” twitter client which has a home screen widget coming with it. So you will get the latest three Facebook-notifications and the latest three tweets on your home screen, leaving you just three empty slots for all your other apps, which is just not enough.

But there’s another problem. I also purchased “Profimail”, because with a business phone, I need an HTML-email-client that works quick and reliable. Nokia Messaging is a disappointment in that perspective and I don’t even want to talk about this thing they call email client that comes with that phone. So, with “Profimail”, “Facebook for Nokia” and “Gravity” running in the background, the N97 is nearly at the edge of it’s capacities.

If you open a link from Twitter and browse a heavy website, use OVI Maps, browse the photo gallery or use Skype, (note: only ONE of it at a time) other programs might (will) close in the background, so after doing this, I have to check, if “Gravity” is still running afterwards for instance. So there isn’t as much multitasking as you would expect.

Of course, this is less of a Symbian- and more of a N97-problem, because there is just so little RAM and ROM that the possibilities of Symbian nearly cannot be used. So again, we have a problem of product – or better – OS-placement here. It happened that the real powerhouses on the market today are NOT running Symbian. That’s a serious problem and not at last Nokias own fault.

With Android 2.1 and HTCs “Friendstream”, Samsungs “Social Hub” or Motorolas “Motoblur” however – apart from the much better hardware specifications on each and every Android 2.1 device out there – you got an app out of the box that will get you all the updates from your Friends on Facebook, Flickr and Twitter – with photos, links and all. You can flip through the feeds on your home screen or jump right into it. Of course, you will have status updates of these three Services in your phonebook, too, plus you can see, if the contact you’re viewing is online and jump directly to his or her Facebook page and so on. How cool is that?

If you look at the SE Vivaz, there you get a twitter and facebook client out of the box at least, but these are quite simple apps and compared to the competitors solutions, it seems more like a workaround.

Again, on Android 2.1 with “HTC Sense”, you can simply mark some text in the webbrowser and immediately a contextmenu pops up, asking you whether you want to copy it, look it up or share it. If you click on the search button, you can either look it up in “wikipedia”, in the dictionary or instantly translate it using the build in “google translator”. Now that’s real integration of webservices!

Let’s take a look on the two other big players out there: The new Windows phone 7 OS and the WEB OS from Palm both feature more of an closed iPhone concept compared to Androids open desktop-computer-like concept, but they feature comparable functionality and integration when it comes to social networks. Compared to the N97, this phones feature Social networking 2.0, so to say. Speaking of Windows phone 7, I-phone and Palms WEB OS – these UIs show, that even with more closed UI-concepts, things can be done nicely and with fun without a lack of productivity.

Fun is a keyword here, since it is the biggest let down of Symbian 5th. This UI is not fun to use at all.

That said, to me, the N900 with it’s Maemo OS, adequate hardware and community-app seems to be the only Nokia-device, which can compete to the high end devices of the competitors in the smartphone market. Maemo is a big step forward and with the Mozilla-technology, Nokia is ahead of the pack after a far too long period with average releases. When it comes to the display however, the N900 is kind of a disappointment. It features just a resistive touch screen and no AMOLED technology. AMOLED is just standard for highend smartphones today and as a N97-owner, I don’t really like that resistive screen. The resistive screen offers a few small advantages: you can use a stylus or use your mobile with gloves still on for example. In the everyday usage however, the disadvantages outweigh. You’ve got this rather thick touch-layer lying over your screen, takin away some of it’s brightness and brilliantness and if you ever experienced an I-Phone you will know, what a resisitive screen lacks most: The easy and reliable way, you can flip through home screens and photos on a capacitive screen is simply captivating and proves some of the arguments pro resistive touch screen (accuracy, etc.) to be not practice-relevant theory.

Regarding the Browser, the Fireboxbrowser on the N900 is still the best you can get today in my opinion. The browser of the Desire however is nearly up to it and you shouldn’t forget that the Android 2.1 devices feature multitouch including “pinch to zoom”. In addition to that (contrary to Googles Nexus One) the browser of the Desire features Flash Lite 4.x and is Flash 10.1 ready which will come in Summer this year. Further, Mozilla will release a beta of their Firefox-browser for Android in late 2010.

Regardless which one you choose as your favorite, both of them are 100% better than the standard Symbian browser, which is a thing Symbian has to work on immediately!

I’m sorry to state this, but apart from market share and so on – to my eyes – the Symbian-based touch screen phones that are available today are way behind expectations and in many perspectives behind the competitors, too.

I still like Symbian on the E-Series-devices, though. Designed for just this kind of non touch input method and business oriented apps, it just does, what it should do, and it does it quite well.

But when it comes to touch…even if you look at the upcoming Symbian-releases, you have to ask yourself, if Maemo, Android and co wouldn’t be the better choice. I really like the looks and the features of Symbian^3, but actually it just offers, what is standard today on other OSs/UIs and, regarding the home screen, not even that. I could imagine Symbian^3 to be the OS for low-/midlevel and office-oriented smartphones, though. Perhaps this is exactly, what Symbian is aiming at?

But wait – there are two little things regarding Symbian that still light me up.

The first thing is the visual multitasking that’s introduced in Symbian^3. It’s not that new, since it’s featured – and featured better – on Palm Pres “Web OS” and of course the N900, but it’s a feature, Android and Co are missing at the time.

The second one is the newest release of “Nokia Beta Labs”, which is called “Nokia Bots”. Nokia Bots is a collection of add-ons that autonomously learn your personal preferences, and improve user experience with new, customized features and tricks. Currently, four Bots are included:

Profile Bot: Profile changes are suggested on your home screen: confirm automated profile changes for each meeting with a single click, or let them be fully automated for you.

Alarm Bot: Alarm Bot learns at what time you use to wake up, and suggests alarms and profile changes on your home screen nightly. Create a new alarm and automate night profile with a single click, and never again forget phone to silent profile in the morning.

Shortcut Bot: With the help of Shortcut Bot, you get quick access to your most frequently used apps straight from your home screen without configuration hassles: your preferences are learned in the background, and shortcuts automatically updated.

Battery Bot: In case the battery is likely to drain while you sleep, it reminds you in advance to connect the charger.

Now that’s really cool and guess what – it really works! It’s not perfect, but hey, it’s in beta and I really like the idea behind this. This is a direction Symbian definitely should head forward to!

Apart all other things, I think it’s important, that the Symbian UI becomes more intuitive and consistent, which might be done with Symbian^3. As a tech-geek, I wasn’t aware of it, but as I checked out the Android-system, I started to observe people around me that are “normal” users, and they were struggling a lot with the UI of Symbian. Some of them used just a few percent of what the phone could do, even if they missed some of the features. They just believed, the phone couldn’t do it.

Regarding consistency, I’m speaking of two things. First the all known tap and double tap confusion and similar things. Second, I’m speaking of  consistency in terms of loading times and reliability. At least on my N97, you never know how long the menu or an app takes to open. Sometimes, it does not open at all or is closing again while in use, not to speak of the apps that get closed in background. To me, that’s really the most annoying part of Symbian^1.

So for Symbian^3 I think Symbian needs kind of an Apple-approach. What IS FEATURED on the phone has to WORK and it has to work DAMN GOOD. It’s about quality here and not about quantity. Same for the OVI-services and the really slack programed Windows 7 apps by Nokia such as OVI suite. Good ideas, but nothing really finished.

Let’s hope Symbian learned from the past and present so we can take a look back in about a year or so and say: “Things were developing nicely, indeed!”

That said, I just hope the little teasers about Symbian^4 that can be seen today aren’t meant too serious.  I think they’re really a step back regarding the optics. The new, freely configurable home screen that is featured is good, though. But it’s too early to judge about anything here, let’s see, what Symbian^4 will bring. There are good and innovative ideas to be found on Symbian.org, let’s hope, they dare to bring them to life.

Whether waiting is worthwhile…? What are your thoughts on this topic? What can Symbian and Nokia offer, today or in the future, which others can not? Why do you stick with Symbian/Nokia or why not? Could it be, that Symbian simply isn’t the OS for the demands of today’s high end multimedia devices and is better placed in the midrange or just be and stay THE smartphone OS for NON touch screen phones? Would that be a bad thing?