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Nokia: We will define 'open' for Symbian

Nokia smartphone chief Jo Harlow tells ZDNet UK what the company intends to do with Symbian now it has complete control over its development, and explains the differing strategies behind Symbian and MeeGo

Jo Harlow heads up Nokia's smartphone business, and as such plays an integral part in the way the Finnish company develops and updates Symbian devices such as the consumer-orientated N8 and business-focused C7.

On Monday, Nokia announced that it was bringing the development of Symbian back in-house after a two-year period in which the platform was open-sourced under the auspices of the Symbian Foundation.

In addition, new Nokia chief Stephen Elop said last month that Symbian would in future be updated in a new way — incrementally, rather than in a succession of major versions.

ZDNet UK spoke to Harlow on Tuesday at the Symbian Exchange and Exposition 2010 in Amsterdam to find out more about Nokia's plans for the world's most widely deployed smartphone platform.

Q: Is Symbian still open? How will Nokia change its licensing terms?
A: I don't have the complete answer right now because this is something we're currently working on, over the course of the next three months, with the Foundation and our partners. We will define what 'open' means — we believe in being open, but we'll define what that means in the future and, from a licensing perspective, the direct relationship between Nokia and others.

Will other manufacturers still be able to build Symbian devices, if they choose?
Yes.

Why did Nokia bring Symbian back in-house? Was it because Sony Ericsson and Samsung decided not to build any more Symbian devices?
First of all, Nokia was already doing the vast majority of the development of the Symbian platform. The decision to wrap down the operations of the Foundation was really taken by the Foundation, not Nokia — we are a board member, one of 11 or 12.

If you go back to the reason the Foundation was created in the first place, each of the manufacturers was expected to contribute code. Having the Foundation and a governance approach to the Symbian platform made sense. Now that the decisions have been made by some of the other manufacturers, it's clear the role of the Foundation in its current form is not needed. For us, it means not a lot. We will continue to develop the Symbian platform and we no longer need to have the extra step of working with the Foundation in terms of making that available to third parties.

So does that mean development of the platform will now speed up?
In eliminating some of the additional steps and work necessary in terms of working with the Foundation, yes, that should bring some benefit. I wouldn't characterise it as a dramatic improvement in time-to-market, but it is a simplification.

If you think about what is a UI paradigm, the UI paradigm of an iPhone is that you're standing at the front door of the house and you can go to any other room, but then you have to go back. The UI paradigms of Android and Symbian are similar: that you can go into a room and into the next room.

What sort of updates can we expect to see to the Symbian UI, and when?
In early 2011 there will be things like split-screen text entry, portrait Qwerty and Swype integrated into the UI, as well as a new browser and a new browsing experience that is much more modern. We will...

... develop a roadmap. The difference is that typically when we've introduced a new range of Nokia devices, maybe they got one or two updates. Now, for the whole lifetime of the devices, there will be updates. It's an opportunity for us to bring new content and further improvements to the UI.

How will the Symbian UI change? Will it become more like rivals such as iPhone and Android, or will it become something new?
MeeGo will be a new UI paradigm, and thats all I'm going to say. For Symbian, we will make it more beautiful from a visual perspective and as a total experience.

So MeeGo will be very new and Symbian will just be tweaked?
The UI framework we have for Symbian will be improved upon. MeeGo is being developed to establish what is the high end of innovation in smartphones as well as other devices. What happens after MeeGo is yet to be determined.

What would you say to Symbian developers who may be worried about Nokia taking complete control, seeing as it also has a finger in the MeeGo pie?
We're now providing the ability for developers to develop for both platforms with ease, with the unified development platform of Qt and Qt Quick. It's a much easier platform to utilise than certainly the old Symbian tools, and the ability to port an application developed for Symbian or for MeeGo to the other platform becomes much easier. My message to developers is, "You now have an unprecedented access to scale that we've not been able to deliver before."

What with Nokia's focus on Symbian and MeeGo, do you intend to ditch the S40 platform you use in your low-end devices?
The world has not gone all smartphones yet. There's still a billion-and-a-half consumers who don't have a mobile device. The number of consumers using feature phones today is enormous and, yes, there's a huge desire to use a smartphone, but there are also affordability issues in the Western world and in developing markets. S40 gives us a powerful platform to be able to appeal to that consumer. Feature phones are becoming more and more attractive at lower and lower price points for serving the whole world and not just the Western world.

That said, do you think Nokia is facing serious competition from cheap Android handsets such as those made by Huawei and ZTE, which offer smartphone features at very low prices?
The consumer will vote on that, based on the experience that they actually receive. Yes, the platform there is the full Android platform, but performance-wise it's quite different than what some people may expect from that platform. That's the battleground — what experience a consumer gets at what price point.

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