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Will Legacy Smartphone Platforms Keep-up with iPhone and Android?

[BlackBerry OS, Windows Mobile and Symbian/S60 were designed years ago – the traditional strengths of these software platforms are rapidly becoming liabilities in the fast-paced smartphone market. Guest blogger Michael Vakulenko answers a critical question: are user interface face-lifts, application stores or even going open source enough for the legacy smartphone platforms to stand-up to the challenges posed by iPhone and Android?]

In just two years smartphones have transformed from a niche product category to a fast growing segment playing key role in competitive struggle between mobile and Internet giants. According to Gartner, smartphone sales grew healthy 27%, while overall cell phone sales declined 6% in Q2 2009.

The unprecedented success of iPhone changed market requirements almost overnight; today smartphones are all about smooth delivery of digital content, applications and Web 2.0 services.

Coming from very different backgrounds, BlackBerry OS, Windows Mobile and Symbian/S60 were designed to achieve very different product objectives, being it a business productivity tool or a unified platform for wide range of high-end phones. Yet these software platforms will require radical improvements to compete with iPhone and Android, and ground-up design for the mobile Internet age.

BlackBerry OS is part of an end-to-end mobile messaging solution developed by RIM for the enterprise market. It was designed to integrate with enterprise collaboration systems, provide state-of-the-art security and operate over low-bandwidth 2.5G cellular networks.

Windows Mobile evolved as a variant of the Pocket PC operating system, adding a cellular phone to the PDA. Windows Mobile was conceived as a companion product for Microsoft Windows operating systems and Office application suites.

Symbian OS together with ‘Series 60′ user interface powers Nokia’s high-end phones. It was designed to provide consistent software platform for very broad range of Nokia phones – From souped-up feature phones like 6120 to multimedia power-phones like N96 and business-oriented phones like E71. As a result, Symbian/S60 is skewed towards phone functions, really being a good mobile phone with multimedia capabilities and supporting downloadable applications.

We will return to the legacy platforms later in the discussion, but in general, legacy smartphone platforms do a decent job in their respective “comfort zones”. Nonetheless, when taken out of their natural environment they fall far behind in comparison to iPhone and Android. These modern platforms were designed for new market requirements without constraints of legacy code or backwards compatibility considerations.

iPhone and Android
While technically very different, iPhone and Android share many common traits. Both are designed as true multi-purpose devices fulfilling a wide spectrum of business and personal use cases. The user interface of these software platforms relies on relatively large touch-screens with gesture-based controls, designed for device personalization, easy discovery, delivery and consumption of content, application and services.

Downloadable applications further extend the spectrum of possibilities with the device. iPhone and Android offer software development environments allowing fast and easy creation of wide array of novel applications from turning the device into a musical instrument to location-based collaboration services and augmented reality systems.

High-speed 3G networks and Wi-Fi connectivity finally brought Web applications to mobile devices. iPhone and Android are equipped with powerful state-of-the art Web browsers based on the open source WebKit engine. Moreover, iPhone and Android browsers provide constantly improving support for emerging HTML5 standard, which brings capabilities of Web applications even closer to capabilities of applications installed on the device. This includes JavaScript performance improvements, location services and offline capabilities which are critically important on mobile devices.

There is wide gap between modern and legacy smartphone platforms in all these areas, calling for radical improvements to the legacy platforms. This gap cannot be closed by just user interface face-lifts, launching application stores or even going open source.

BlackBerry is recognized for its user interface optimized for email and productivity applications. It, however, showed its limitations on BlackBerry Storm – Not such a successful touchscreen “iPhone killer”.

The BlackBerry application environment is based on the J2ME framework with proprietary extensions by RIM. The J2ME framework was originally designed for feature phones and as such restricts access to device capabilities available to applications. Proprietary extensions introduced by RIM to J2ME further deepen fragmentation and lack of compatibility characteristic of the J2ME environment.

BlackBerry is a closed platform tightly integrated with BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). For example, there are six different methods for an application to open up an Internet connection. Instead of going to the open Internet, most of them end up traversing BES in the enterprise data center. While this approach makes perfect sense for many enterprise use cases, it does not necessary work well for the open Internet. Furthermore, BlackBerry platform utilizes proprietary Web browser, which obviously slows down adoption of latest Web technologies by the BlackBerry platform.

Taking the BlackBerry platform out of its natural habitat of corporate messaging stretches capabilities of the architecture. Without significant improvements and openness in application and Web services frameworks, BlackBerry will find it difficult to complete with iPhone and Android outside of its established customer target segment.

Windows Mobile
Upcoming Windows Mobile 6.5 (Windows Phone by its new moniker) promises much-needed user interface improvements and a better Web browser. Unfortunately, the new version of Windows Mobile is still based on the same outdated version of Windows CE kernel, which was responsible for the lack of stability and responsiveness plaguing previous versions of the platform. Windows CE 5 limits applications to 32MB of memory per application and is restricted to 32 total processes in the system.

The Windows Mobile application environment is based on WIN32 and .NET Compact programming interfaces. While well understood and supported by software developers, these programming interfaces represent scaled-down versions of interfaces designed for Windows on PC. This environment is too complex and outdated compared to modern programming and mobile application paradigms.

All in all, Windows Mobile 6.5 appears to be an incremental stopgap solution. Presumably, the next major Windows Mobile version will leverage know-how gained by Microsoft with the acquisition of Danger, and provide long-term response from Microsoft to smartphone challenges. The big question is when will it come to the market?

Nokia’s Symbian/S60 user interface is infamous for its complexity and is optimized for making voice calls. It can greatly benefit from basic usability enhancements in practically everything else. For example, there is absolutely no reason why placing an application shortcut on the home screen requires going through nine (!) menu layers, or setting a meeting date cannot be done through a calendar widget. (disclaimer: I own Nokia E71).

Symbian/S60 offers multiple choices for application developers: Native Symbian code, J2ME, Flash Lite, Web Runtime and even Python scripting. None of these choices is great by itself – each has its own limitations and compatibility issues. Native programming has a steep learning curve and unnecessary complex signing procedures, while J2ME and the Web Runtime are too limited for modern applications.

Whilst the S60 Web browser is also based on WebKit engine, it is slow and lacks HTML5 capabilities supported by iPhone and Android.

Moreover, Nokia’s decision to open Symbian/S60 source has stalled development of the platform. It will be very difficult for Nokia and its partners to make major improvements to the platform in parallel to moving the platform to an open source model.

iPhone and Android set new standards and, at least in the medium term, will continue to lead the way in all major areas of smartphone software. There are no quick fixes for legacy platforms and it will take considerable time and massive R&D resources for RIM, Microsoft and Nokia to break from limitations of their product architectures and legacy code.

It will be great to continue this discussion on the future of the smartphone software platforms in the blog comments. Your feedback is much appreciated.

– Michael

[Michael Vakulenko has been working in the mobile industry for over 15 years starting his career in wireless in Qualcomm. Throughout his career he gained broad experience in many aspects of mobile technologies including handset software, mobile services, network infrastructure and wireless system engineering. Today Michael consults and provides expert training to established and start-up companies, and can be reached at michaelv [/at/] WaveCompass.com ]

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  • The analysis is interesting. For example, I agree with Michael that speed of implementing new market requirements will be a core differentiator between mobile platforms.

    However, you won’t be surprised to hear that I reach a different overall conclusion. I've written a longer response, "Open source accelerating development" at http://wp.me/pC0Rn-14

    // David Wood, Symbian

  • David Schwartzman

    Very interesting analysis!

    A couple of comments:

    1. I doubt that we know enough about Android to be sure that it will be able to repeat the amazing iPhone's parade. Let's see.

    2. I think finally user interface will determine what platform will win. Meanwhile iPhone is the best indeed.

    3. You're right the easiness of access to applications and downloading content is crucial.

    4. Are you sure Blackberry is in this race? It looks that RIM is about business and enterprise. They do not pretend to compete with iPhone to be an entertaintment platform, like Nokia tries with many of its Series 60/Symbian versions.

    5. As for Windows Phone it will be very interesting to check it and to see whether it will stand the promise. I see you are skeptical. Be careful not to bury Microsoft before they really died.

  • Annler

    You are so right about "This gap cannot be closed by just user interface face-lifts, launching application stores or even going open source.", I think Symbian OS will continue to exist as long as Nokia supports them, but the consumers,who buy the phones are talking about iPhone not about Symbian. The Symbian camp has missed the point completely.

  • Hi Annler

    >the consumers, who buy the phones are talking about iPhone not about Symbian. The Symbian camp has missed the point completely

    I'm puzzled by your remark. The fact that most consumers are (presently) unaware about Symbian does not mean that Symbian market share is going to decline, or that Symbian becomes a weaker platform for developers to target.

    A global market smartphone share of 50.2% for Q2 sales – according to Canalys, http://is.gd/2ojPX – counts for something. And if we looked at figures, not for Q2 unit sales, but for installed base, the Symbian figure would surely be higher again.

    // David Wood, Symbian

  • Michael Vakulenko

    To David Wood:

    Instead of turning Symbian __operating system__ into __service delivery platform__ (as iPhone and Android), Nokia/Symbian spent valuable time on making Symbian a better OS. That was my point on stalled development. Going open source by itself does not close the gap.

    It's important to distinguish between "feature freeze" dates on Symbian roadmap and the time the software appears in mass-produced handsets. We both know there is big difference. We can expect that Symbian^2 (partial initial release) will reach the market sometime towards mid 2010 at best. This is three years after introduction of iPhone and two years after Nokia decided to take Symbian open source. And this is with Symbian^2, which is still behind iPhone and Android shipping today. More competitive Symbian^4 will reach the market sometime in 2011.

    Needless to say, iPhone and Android have all the time to make further progress.

  • Michael Vakulenko

    To David Schwartzman:

    Given Windows Mobile weaknesses (tech and business), Android shows great potential to emerge as platform of choice for all those companies wanting a piece of high-marging smartphone market that are not named Apple.

    It's never a good idea to write off Microsoft. They cannot afford to loose here, have software and service expertize, and got money to make mistakes…

  • Michael Vakulenko

    To David Wood (again):

    I was always uncomfortable with these smartphone market share numbers: 50.2% of smartphones sold are running Symbian. It seems the analysts blindly attribute all Symbian shipments to smartphone segment. Convenient, but not exact to say the least.

    Is Nokia 6120 a smartphone competing with iPhone, Blackberry, Android, and Windows Mobile? I don't think so. Same doubt for many mid-tier Nokia phones running Symbian.

    How many high-end E71, N97 and N96 are out there and what is their total market share? I guess that the market share comparison could look very different, if analysts had answer to this question.

  • Michael,

    You make a big distinction between operating system and service delivery platform, and claim that the Symbian platform is the former, not the latter.

    However, there are plenty of provisions inside the Symbian platform supporting the delivery of services. Examples of these services include Nokia's "Comes with music", map services, location based services, push email services, gaming services, and web services galore.

    Or am I missing something about the distinction you are trying to draw?

    Second, you state baldly that Symbian is "behind iPhone and Android shipping today". Here's just one counter example.

    At the MoMo London event this evening, a developer who has strong experience in all three of these mobile platforms (and more besides) told me that some of the mobile services he was implementing on multiple platforms COULD NOT BE IMPLEMENTED FOR iPHONE. Reason – lack of background processing (true multi-tasking) on the iPhone.

    So things are far from as clear cut as you describe.

    // David Wood, Symbian

  • Michael (again),

    I'm really puzzled by your nitpicking over sizes of markets. You almost seem to have a "sizeist" bias: you rule out small phones from being smart. You imply that people who spend less money on their phones (and buy mid-tier devices) are never going to be interested in downloading and running apps.

    Try telling that to the millions of people in (say) India who love these lower-priced devices, and who are definitely interested in the potential of applications!

    Since the Nokia 6120 can install and run native Symbian apps such as Gravity and Google Maps, I see no reason to exclude it from statistics of market size.

    // David W.

  • I think one element missing from this assessment is the needs of core telephony – call completion, conferencing, muting, 3-way; and core messaging. My view would be that the jury is still out on how well some of the new platforms will accomplish these functions, not least because of the interference between the myriad of apps and this basic functionality. Ultimately the mobile phone is still a highly utilitarian device and the older platforms deliver better along these "boring" dimensions. So, perhaps these advantages will provide some breathing room for incumbents. However, ultimately, I agree with the overall direction of the blog.

  • Igal Perelman

    Good post, thanks.

    Any reason for not including webOS together with iPhone & Android?

  • Michael Vakulenko


    Yes, the needs of core telephony are usually overlooked being one of many things, which are taken for granted.

    Knowing the internals, successful integration of telephony is very non-trivial task. This for example was one of the big weaknesses of Windows Mobile.

    Apple made their life easier by not allowing background applications on the iPhone.

    Android still needs to prove robustness of its telephony framework, which is just one of the services running on the device. Good news that many handset manufacturers working with Android understand these issues and are able to fine-tune this open source platform.

  • Michael Vakulenko


    The only reason for omitting WebOS is the length of this post. I used to be longtime Palm user (my Treo 650 still gets a charge once in a while).

    Palm did excellent job in designing smartphone device with modern software platform. However, it is difficult to see how WebOS can escape the role of a niche player. Palm cannot expect to replicate iPhone success (Pre is not a game changer), and it will not have the scale of Android achieved by its open model.

    Being a standalone device play, WebOS does not have a leading "killer application" like other smartphones: iPhone is all about entertainment; Android is strongly linked to Google services; Blackberry is an icon for corporate mobile email; Windows Mobile promises Outlook, Office and Windows Live on-the-go; Nokia is first and foremost about having a solid mobile phone.

    If only Palm was a Canadian company…. Just a wild thought…. ;^)

  • Yusuf Erkan

    Interesting article and posts. Still, I think smartphones will remain a niche, because it is a convergent device. What we will see more are specialized or diverged devices running specialized software applications on a standardized OS. These devices will be called differently and probably will defined differently. Symbian defines a smartphone as following: A voice centric device with information capabilities.

    My humble prediction is that we will see more data than voice and that should change a lot.

    I believe the great work around David W. and his team will pay out if persistent. All players are taking positions and as Android, Apple, Microsoft, RIM, Palm and many others do, I think there is plenty of room for more fragmentation in this gigantic space. One seize wont fit here at all, it is too competitive.

  • Tobias Yergin

    The article is right on the money. If you look at the seven critical success vectors of a mobile OS, you'll see that the incumbents are languishing in critical areas.

    1) OEM device wins… well look at the broader "horizontal" OSes. Android clearly has the momentum here. Will they learn how to play nice with their customers and make it easier to take product to market? We'll see. Lots of hype and a healthy pipeline… but few phones thus far

    2) Operator support. Symbian and WinMo clearly are far ahead of everyone else, but this is primarily due to their longevity in the market. If Android is succesful with their business model (different than EVERYONE else in that that rev share the app revenue with the operators, rather than keep it themselves), look out. So far, only T-Mo jumping in with both feet. I expect other Tier 1s to join the party soon.

    3) Size of dev community. Symbian, WinMo large base. iPhone growing quickly. WebOS comes at this from a different approach and I personally think they're onto something here… HTML5, CSS, SMIL, JS, off-line caching, et cetera give them a potentially HUGE pool of developers in the waiting. We'll see if they can get them to jump in

    4) Momentum of the developer community. One clear winner here. Apple. Android coming on strong with over 6K apps without a lot of devices… they have the volume promise, the market, the tools, documentation is getting better, good return on time (easy dev model), the panache of Google brand (cool, sexy allure), and a $10M investment pool. I fully expect they to reach 10K apps by EoY. Watch what happens next year if 20 devices really hit the market in the next 6 months.

    5) End-user experience. Already discussed at length. Apple is CLEARLY the gold standard. Will be interesting to see what Donut and Eclair can bring to the table. WebOS is in many ways better than iPhone… how would the game change if Palm licensed WebOS? I know nothing, but I bet they will soon. It's simply too good to not give it a go (for the second time :-).

    6) Business model. Open source v. proprietary. vertically integrated v. horizontal. pay for support v. pay for sw license. picking the right open sources licenses, revenue sharing, completeness of the stack, customization options (can the OEM/operator differentiate)… not enough time to adequately discuss here. Leave it to say, I think Android is onto something.

    7) Investment model. Can the OS company sustain the necessary R&D to keep up with the Jones? If they are open source, what kind of contributions are they getting from the developer community? What is the development cost per unit? Can the OS scale into adjacent market (like Netbooks, IVI, or CE devices) to reduce the R&D burden? Again… I think Android is onto something here.

    My .02,


    BTW, look at what RIM has done over the past 6 months.. license Google Gears, buy a webkit based browser company, reached an agreement with MS for Sliverlight support, and cemented the agreement with Adobe for FULL Flash… Kinda looks like RIM is moving quickly to shore up their deficiencies. AND, they are the correct moves IMO. Good on' em for recogizing and reacting.

  • Edwin

    A key element for smartphone platforms is the momentum of its ecosystem. Clearly the momentum is with Android right now, followed by iPhone. Symbian has lost its momentum, similar to Windows Mobile.

    Of course this can change rapidly due to multiple factors (attractivity: installed base, ease of use of development, making money; but also fashionability), but takes a lot of effort and, more important, creativity that enlightens their audience…

  • Mika

    To Michael Vakulenko:

    "Is Nokia 6120 a smartphone competing with iPhone, "

    Yes it is. Maybe it is not as powerful as eg. N95 or N97 etc, but it is as much smartphone as those others mentioned. It has similar hardware features: gps, camera, etc. and more importantly it can run Symbian apps like any higher end smartphone. Same applies for many mid-tier Nokia phones running Symbian. Sure eg. Nokia 6120 is not as high end ans N- and E-series phones, nut it is a smartphone.

  • very thorough analysis and made for an interesting read. It does look like Android has the strongest roadmap and strategy to become a truly global operating system on all smart phones. Nokia is investing heavily on Symbian, but it is still one generation behind the newer platforms from Apple and Google

  • I just got myself an i…PAQ. Why? A fraction of a price of iPhone or gPhone.

    Of course, Windows (I can talk only about it since I have it) Mobile is outdated. But at the end of the day it runs. It runs Skype. ) It runs appointments. It does nice surfing. (Thanks to Skyfire.) Actually all companies other than MS are making good improvements to the platform. May be this will be a key differentiator – price.

  • The gap can't be closed by issuing a corporate mandate so I really question how RIM and others plan to keep up.

    The iPhone's software stack probably has ~20 calendar years of cutting-edge software inside (NeXT, Objective-C, Display PS/PDF, etc.). That's an eternity.

    Android represents a tremendous amount of effort and Google is earnest about improving it at breakneck speed.

    WebOS's HTML5 approach is a smart shortcut to building a slick UI but can it give developers and consumers what they want? I suspect RIM will look at their calendar and make the same "the browser is the OS" decision.

    I assume everyone in this race gets it but it would be great to understand how much R&D, in people and dollars, is actually being performed by the laggards.

  • Dzglksfmtv Gjvcsforar

    Gut sieht gut aus, hoffen, um Glück zu bringen, hat Android-System schnell in der Zukunft entwickelt lenteen


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