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Symbian tablets 'very likely', says Foundation chief

Symbian Foundation CEO Lee Williams tells ZDNet UK what the open-sourcing process meant for the mobile OS's code base, and talks about tablet plans
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

On Thursday, the Symbian Foundation announced that it had completed the open-sourcing of its mobile operating system — the largest such migration in software history.

ZDNet UK spoke to Lee Williams, chief executive of the Symbian Foundation, to learn more about the implications of the open-sourcing process for the venerable OS and find out what people can expect from upcoming versions.

Q: There was a lot of third-party code in Symbian — how much of that had to be stripped from the OS, and how much did the third parties agree to open source?
A: We took the Symbian OS code, which is approximately a third of the main branch of the code line, then we took the Series 60 code from Nokia, which is easily a third or more, then the code from the former UIQ.

We re-architected the software at the same time, breaking it into packages and making it more modular, to let other companies own it more easily.

The third-party intellectual property was numbered in the hundreds — close to 200 different companies. When we went through the [open-sourcing] process, we entered negotiations with almost all of those companies at some level.

The majority of those agreed to do so, but 20 percent did not. There, we either ripped and replaced the code, or we did not continue to include it in the distribution. We did not license, negotiate or purchase [code].

Did stripping or abandoning code mean the loss of functionality?
Yes, [we lost] the file system, graphics drivers... in that [latter] case we were previously licensing technology from Nvidia, but because we couldn't come to terms with them for open-sourcing that part of the code, we wrote new drivers. Nokia and Sony Ericsson developers wrote new drivers.

These are examples, not everything, [but] only small portions were actually rewritten. The majority were replaced with open-source alternatives that were already out there, and were simply ported.

You have shown off a couple of design concepts for the new Symbian user interface, but nothing definitive yet. What were the concept UIs for, and when will we see a final version?
When we show those concepts, we're highlighting features of the software system that a lot of people aren't aware of.

[Symbian has] received some heat for having an outdated UI, but a lot of that is unfair commentary. Transparency effects, graded graphics and resolution capabilities are available in the software, especially since we added the Qt core libraries. We have only been showing off some of the capabilities.

With the Symbian^3 and Symbian^4 releases, you will have some advanced implementations of the UI, including great usability paths. We've counted the number of inputs it takes you to do various functions, and greatly simplified those. We've also added, by default, some effects, instead of leaving it up to others to utilise those.

Symbian^4 will introduce a whole new graphical approach for the UI. We will support nine different types of displays.

Does that mean we will see Symbian on different device types, other than smartphones?
I'm confident you will. We have what we call a 'Wild Ducks' project. This is a project where we have ported the system software to what we call off-the-shelf [hardware], so anyone can make a phone with it now.

We're also compiling it with the GCC compiler, which is the key logistical hurdle to compilation on other platform architectures like x86. We've already ported the system to Intel's Atom processor, and that type of code is available.

So, can we expect to see a Symbian-based tablet or netbook?
It's very likely that, in the next year or two, you would see such a product hit the marketplace. A lot of companies are experimenting with PDA-tablet-style form factors, also for stereo systems, and internet-connected devices running low power on primarily ARM architecture — we do get occasional interest for a few of those.

Returning to the UI issue, will Symbian S^3 look like Series 60?
It will look very similar in the way you navigate, menu navigation and so forth. There are enhancements to the visual elements — a slightly sleeker interface, depth and polish. There are enhancements where we reduced the number of inputs and menu options.

You will see a different UI in Symbian^3; it just won't be the 'power UI' until about Symbian^4.

When is Symbian^4 due?
We release [distributions] twice a year, and the code is available between those time-boxes. The Symbian^4 code will be available in a matter of weeks, but it will not be fully maturised or packaged into a kit for software developers and others for another four to five months.

Have any handsets used Symbian^2 code?
Nokia and Sony Ericsson have used Symbian^2 code in their products; they just did not wait for us to release a distribution of Symbian^2. The Nokia N97 mini, Sony Ericsson's Aino — Symbian^2 code is in there.

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