Symbian Foundation aims to improve app development

Symbian logoThe Symbian Foundation is revitalizing its platform and exploring ways to improve the application development experience. A new initiative called Symbian Horizon has launched to assist developers with the process of deploying their applications. A number of intriguing technical initiatives that may improve Symbian tooling are also underway.

The Symbian Foundation is launching a new initiative intended to help third-party software developers build, deploy, and market applications for the Symbian platform. The program, which is called Symbian Horizon, will provide various services to application developers with the aim of lowering some of the platform's barriers to entry and reducing the time that it takes to get a program into the hands of end users.

Symbian Horizon is currently in an early testing stage with a limited number of participants, but it will be opened up to the broader Symbian development community in October. It will include signing and certification assistance, localization services, and co-marketing opportunities. It will also help developers get their software distributed via various application stores.

Although Symbian is presently the top mobile smartphone operating system, its dominance is increasingly being challenged by emerging competitors such as Google's Linux-based Android platform. Nokia acquired Symbian last year and launched the Symbian Foundation to create a vendor-neutral environment and transform the Symbian operating system into an open source platform. The organization is working to make Symbian available under the Eclipse Public License (EPL), a moderately permissive open source software license.

Horizon is one of the Symbian Foundation's first public steps to boost third-party developer mindshare for the platform and capture some of the buzz that has accompanied the growth of the competing iPhone App Store. The Symbian Foundation will also use the Horizon initiative as a way to reach out to application store operators and help them make their distribution channels more accessible to developers.

The Guardian and NPR are among the first Horizon participants. They are building Symbian applications to bring their content to mobile devices users. Location-based mobile dating company Skout is also part of the pilot program. On the application store side of the arrangement, the Symbian Foundation's partners include Nokia, Samsung, and AT&T.

Technical improvements coming soon

Although the services that the Symbian Foundation intends to offer through Horizon will help ameliorate some of the major business and deployment challenges that are associated with this platform, our readers will undoubtedly be quick to point out that it will do little to address some of the underlying technical issues that make the platform a difficult target for application developers.

In response to some of our previous coverage of Symbian, mobile application developers have written in to share their experiences. Even veteran C++ programmers are frustrated with the idiosyncrasies of Symbian's C++ dialect, particularly with its unusual "descriptor" string classes and lack of support for proper exception handling. Other complaints focus on Symbian's SDK and Eclipse-based IDE, which are only supported on Windows and can sometimes be difficult to get running properly.

There is a growing perception among some mobile application developers that Symbian is hampered by legacy design decisions that make it difficult to develop software for the platform. There are also some who contend that Symbian user interface toolkits aren't capable of providing the kind of rich user experience that the platform needs to compete with Apple.

The Symbian Foundation is paying close attention to the concerns expressed by developers and is working on a number of technical initiatives that could significantly strengthen the platform. In response to some specific complaints about the crufty toolchain and related problems, the Symbian Foundation's "catalyst and futurist" David Wood wrote a blog entry earlier this year that outlined several of the organization's plans for improving the developer experience.

"In the Symbian Foundation, we understand that the best route to significantly improve consumer experience with smart mobile devices is to significantly improve developer experience," he wrote. "We are committed to making it easier, more productive, and more pleasurable, for developers to create and enhance mobile applications, services, and devices."

He says that they plan to consolidate the platform SDKs and reform the Symbian Signed program to reduce complexity and costs for third-party developers. The Symbian Foundation recently hired Paul Beusterien, formerly of Wind River Systems, to lead the effort to improve Symbian development tools. He's actively seeking feedback from the developer community on tooling issues. Wood says the Symbian Foundation is "putting a whole department in place" to tackle tooling, but it will take time to assemble the team.

Scott Weiss, the foundation's UI technology manager, recently launched a user interface brainstorming initiative on a public WordPress blog. Inspired by a similar effort that was recently undertaken by the GIMP community, he is eagerly encouraging people to e-mail him sketches and mockups that depict ways of improving the Symbian user experience. He intends to post these on the WordPress blog so that other members of the community can comment and provide feedback. This will encourage broader dialog about how to make Symbian shine.

At a Symbian Foundation board of directors meeting last month, a group of Symbian engineers demonstrated the process of building an application for Symbian, Android, and the iPhone. The purpose of this demonstration was to highlight for the board aspects of Symbian development that are potentially more cumbersome than they should be and to determine where improvements can be made to get third-party developers up and running faster.

"We profiled the whole development chain for app creation [for all three platforms]. This included downloading and installing the tools and kits, exploring reference material, creating an application, signing, and publishing to the marketplace, and loading and using the apps on a device," wrote Symbian Foundation director Lee M. Williams in a blog entry about the demonstration. "We have done more extensive analysis in the past, but there is nothing like seeing these things first hand, counting the number of steps, and looking at the real deltas as it concerns ease of getting to the marketplace. This can help us focus our priorities and get the resources we need to really address some of the potential shortcomings in the approach we provide in our ecosystem."

They even published a video on YouTube to capture the moment. It shows the board members interacting with the engineers as the demonstration is taking place.

It's worth noting that there are a lot of compelling developer-oriented technologies that are already available and becoming increasingly mature. The web widget runtime, for example, is conducive to rapid development and provides JavaScript APIs for leveraging underlying platform capabilities. There is also a Python runtime that can be used to build fully functional applications. In March, the foundation published a paper (PDF) that described an ongoing research project to build a Symbian Ruby runtime with YARV. A great project from Nokia that we have been keeping a close eye on is the highly promising S60 port of the Qt toolkit, which could make it easier to build Symbian applications with richer user interfaces.

If you look beyond the relatively mundane business-oriented plans like Horizon that are touted in the press releases and you look instead at the increasingly diverse assortment of important technical initiatives that are described at the foundation's blog, you will see the signs of what could be a vibrant Symbian renaissance.

At OSCON last year, Symbian's vice president of strategy John Forsyth said that Symbian stakeholders would have to build a "clean room culture" that champions openness. In many ways, that vision has become a reality. The foundation is operating with a high level of transparency and is consistently encouraging participation. It is learning a lot by observing competitors and other open source software projects. The foundation is also engaging with the community, answering questions, and making contact information of key personnel accessible.

Apple, Google, Palm, and even Microsoft are boosting user and developer expectations for smartphone computing. The Symbian Foundation is clearly trying to rise to the challenge and is working to address the historical deficiencies of the Symbian platform. The foundation has played a good game so far, but now it has to follow through with the new vision and deliver the technology.

Source: arstechnica

Tags: mobile phones, Nokia

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