Improved user interface key issue for Symbian

The Symbian Foundation is looking to fully embrace touchscreen smartphones

Unlike the iPhone and products based on Google's Android OS, Symbian's user interface hasn't been developed for smartphones with touchscreens. But that is about to change, said Lee Williams, executive director at the Symbian Foundation, who along with his colleagues gathered at the Symbian Exchange & Exposition on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Symbian Foundation was formed after Nokia acquired the Symbian company in last June. The foundation is working on a number of upcoming versions of the OS, and also turning the source code into open source. The latter process is expected to be done by the middle of 2010.

The main problem with the user interface on current Symbian devices is the number of times users have to click to find an application or settings. That comes from the fact that the user interface really isn't built for phones with touchscreens, but for devices that are controlled using physical keys. So the user interface needs to evolve to support touchscreen devices and that's taking time, according to Williams.

The big change will come in Symbian Version 4, which is getting a user interface based on the Qt UI framework that has been built from the ground up for touchscreen devices.

The interface in version 4, which is still being developed, will come with transparency effects integrated all over the system, according to Williams. Another improvement is that Web-based widgets will have the same performance as application that run directly on the phone, he said.

There is also a fully declarative user interface, which means that the developer only has to write an application once and it will work irrespective of the display size or the resolution, Williams said.

But the evolution of the user interface will start in Symbian Version 2, which will be the first full release of the OS under the Symbian Foundation. For example, the number of inputs necessary to get to settings or controls has been reduced. Also, when searching for something in a list only the letters that are relevant for what you can type next alphabetically will be displayed, instead of the whole QWERTY keyboard, according to Williams.

The first phones based on Symbian Version 2 are expected to become available in the first quarter of next year, and code for Symbian Version 4 will be available to product manufacturers in the next four months, according to Williams. It then will take six to nine months for manufacturers to release products with the updated OS, but some phones may come sooner than that depending on how aggressive the manufacturers are, he said.

That means products should become available toward the end of 2010, but could show up during the third quarter of next year.

Meanwhile, Apple and Google will, of course, be working to improve the user interfaces on next-generation iPhones and Android-based devices.

But if Symbian's user interface trails the competition on usability, the core of the operating system is second to none, according to Williams. The core is a microkernel, which was open-sourced last week, and is portable across different architectures, including application processors and chipsets, he said.

"It's a true multitasking kernel and a very mature one. As a consumer that lets me stay logged into Twitter, Facebook, three e-mail accounts, browse the Web, take an SMS and hop over to a phone call, and when I'm on the call I don't drop my connection to Twitter," said Williams.

IPhones lack that ability.

Having all those applications running at the same time puts demands on the hardware, but the kernel comes with support for SMP (symmetric multiprocessing). That will let phone manufacturers build more powerful devices, but it also results in better power utilization, according to Williams.

"Also, some of the SMP products that are in development that I'm familiar with are experimenting with dual and double displays, and displays with larger resolutions. That could be exciting in terms of form-factor changes," said Williams, who expects to see the first products with multiple processors in the beginning of 2011.

The kernel has also been optimized to improve the user experience when surfing the Web. Users will, for example, be able to load larger Flash programs and run more simultaneous programs at the same time with less pull on the battery, Williams said.

But improving the OS isn't the only thing Symbian has to do to compete with other smartphones. The success of Apple's App Store has underscored the importance of being open to third-party developers. So, on Tuesday the Foundation announced Horizon, a publishing program and common application directory for Symbian developers.

The Symbian camp has decided to go with a number of different phone manufacturer- or mobile operator-led application stores, instead of one big app store. Developers will send their applications to Horizon, which will then distribute them to multiple stores with a global reach, according to Williams.

"I think it's going to drive innovation, differentiation and competition among appstores in the mainstream market," said Williams.

The main reason for going with multiple application stores is to allow for differences in technology usage in various parts of the world.

"IPhone uptake in India is not that strong, they prefer the Symbian products. And with a multiple app store approach you have a better chance of getting a localized version of an app store down there that's relevant for that market place," said Williams.

Horizon will be tied to the Symbian signed program, which lets developers verify that their application is compatible with the Symbian platform. That program is also being revamped to simplify the process of getting an application signed.

"We have heard from developers and others that that process is just too heavy and has too many steps. So we are trying to really shorten that path for them," said Williams.

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