Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Are Symbian and J2ME dead?

The launch of the iPhone and Android SDKs represent a huge leap forward in the opportunities for mobile device application development. The question for me is how do the current incumbents, Symbian and J2ME, react.

I've talked before about my continued disappointment with mobile applications (Mobile Phone Applications, when will they ever take off?). These experiences have been very much routed in the pre iPhone/Android era.

In the Symbian/J2ME world, applications are poorly integrated with the phone, hidden by layers of menus and generally underwhelming. The world according to iPhone/Android has the opportunity for the application to be front and centre, and in Android's case, closely integrated with the phone functions.

The second half of 2008 promises to be a fantastically exciting time for mobile device users. The iPhone has redefined the mobile device and the version 2.0 firmware with its enterprise features will deliver a device that kicks some serious Windows Mobile butt. Can't believe they're on version 6 and it's still an overweight, clunky to use, buggy monstrosity.

Now apps for the iPhone are not going to be without issues. The big one for me is the inability/refusal to allow background processes to run. It stops all sorts of useful features like background data updates and push facilities that would really make it a BlackBerry killer. That said, it's an amazing user interface experience, and as it continues to demonstrate, even without 3G data transfer speeds, iPhones are blazing a trail in mobile web usage. Though I do suspect most of this is on home WiFi networks.

The killer feature for me is the remote update capabilities that are built into the OS. The link to iTunes is critical to the devices operation and this allows Apple to push new updates, including strategy changes, at will. I can't remember the last time I updated the firmware on a Symbian phone.

Android is taking a very different line, an almost completely open platform. Full access to all the device's functions. Now this is really a desktop-like development experience. No-holds barred, access to everything, only constrained by your imagination type environment. Only one thing is missing, handsets. It seems Samsung and HTC are in a race to deliver the first but apparently this won't be until the end of this year! So develop what you like, it 'aint going to be on a device until 2009.

There seems to be a huge opportunity for Nokia to leverage their number 1, by a long way, position in the world handset market and bring something truly powerful and pervasive to the market. Unfortunately it seemed their response was to make it even harder to get Symbian apps on phones. Why Symbian Signed must die gives a good account.

Symbian can push out news stories about how many handsets ship with Symbian, 77.3m Symbian smartphones shipped in 2007 but for me that's 77m handsets that aren't going to run Symbian apps, it's just too difficult for people, especially enterprises.

Apple are treading a very delicate path with the iPhone, keep it exclusive but get it adopted by enterprises. Historically their products haven't been adopted by this segment. If their aspirations are to get the iPhone into the hands of key personnel and in turn those personnel buy a Mac for home instead of a Windows PC then that's probably a huge result.

I'm pretty neutral on Android. Yes it's flexible, yes it's open, but it's a while before before people can actually use it and who knows what will happen then. I do wonder whether there is a bigger play here involving GrandCentral a mobile device, closely integrated with that service could be very disruptive indeed.

Symbian, IMHO, have lost the plot already. They have huge penetration but low usage and no established update process. It's going to take something dramatic from them to enable them to maintain their dominance of the high-end mobile device market.

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