Michael Vakulenko

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

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
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?

Symbian/S60
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.

Summary
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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