The iPhone vs Android wars are in fully swing, with Blackberry and Palm and even Windows Mobile also in the mix. So why isn't anyone talking about Symbian, which practically owns the world, once you get out of North America? To answer that question, we caught up with Paul Beusterien, head of development tools for the Symbian Foundation. Beusterien will talk about Symbian development at the upcoming OSCON Open Source conference in Portland, Ore.
Why isn't Symbian better known in the U.S.?
Paul Beusterien: So part of it is it's a U.S. versus rest of the world thing, where Symbian is huge worldwide. But in the U.S., it's pretty small. In the U.S., where the other development communities are really thriving and centered, Symbian just is tremendously smaller. It's less true in other parts of the world. There is momentum around Symbian developer communities in Europe and Asia, but it's still nothing like what's going on with the iPhone.
Another dimension is the type of developer community. Symbian historically, its type of developers were working for consulting houses or working at phone operator places or working specifically doing consulting jobs for enterprise customers who wanted mobile apps. So there's a set of consulting companies around the world that have specialized in creating apps for Symbian devices. It's a different kind of dynamic than where iPhone has really been successful at attracting just the hobbyist or the one or two-person company or the person who just wants to go onto the web and start developing.
How are you working to broaden the Symbian developer community?
PB: Part of that comes directly at where I'm focused, developer tools and getting-started experiences. Those are spots where iPhone has done a pretty good job of making it easy for developers to get started. Whereas with Symbian, it's been quite a bit more complicated, with a bigger learning curve and hard to use tools and more complexity. That, combined with something I blogged about recently, which is a clean separation between platform development and application development.
Both iPhone and Android have done a reasonably good job of abstracting the differences between application development and platform development so that application developers can just focus on their apps and not need to worry too much about the gory details of what's going on in the platform or the hardware underneath. There's APIs that are cleanly exposed for when they need to get there, but it's not like it has been historically with Symbian where it's the same development environment for whether you're developing applications or platform extension. Symbian developers have had to sort through that and find what they need through a much bigger pile of stuff. That's changing as we transition to Qt being the primary way to develop applications for Symbian, and that's coming in various stages this year for Symbian application developers.
Is the "write-once, run-anywhere" vision practical for the mobile world?
PB: From a developer perspective, write once and run everywhere is what we should aspire to. To some degree, Android and iPhone aren't helping with that. iPhone with Objective C environments. Android with Java and even Symbian with Qt C++. They're all different and different development environments for the developer. The one place where there is convergence, though, is with the web. All of the major mobile platforms are moving to HTML5 WebKit browsers. Everyone is opening up more and more of their mobile APIs, things like contacts and an accelerometer and camera, to web APIs. And those mobile APIs, combined with the power of HTML5, are enabling more powerful applications to be developed for mobile.
There's standards emerging like BONDI. There's efforts like PhoneGap where you can develop web apps and the PhoneGap will provide APIs to map to Symbian, to Android, to iPhone. Appcelerator Titanium is another option.
Again, I think cross-platform development is going to happen on the web first. The barriers are the lowest, there's the most progress there, and the capabilities are improving all the time.
Note: This interview was condensed and edited.
- Mobile operating systems and browsers are headed in opposite directions
- Why HTML5 is worth your time
- Where do developers draw the line with Apple?