Readers Write About Symbian, OS X and the iPhone
Responding to Origins: Why the iPhone is ARM, and isn't Symbian, sources from Sweden and Finland offer a revealing look inside Symbian development and how the OS is regarded at Nokia, and what that means for development on the iPhone.
One developer writes, “In most regards, Symbian's reputation as a modern, robust, stable and advanced OS for smartphones is not well deserved. Sure, Symbian works, it has a very long feature list, and it's probably even the best smartphone OS available today.  But it's mostly because the competition is pathetic than anything else.
“I have a done several Symbian projects and have a thorough knowledge and low-level understanding of Symbian. And I just hate it. It's a very bad and uninspiring OS even from a programmers point of view.”
Nokia’s POS/OS
Sources close to Nokia say that Symbian is secretly regarded inside the company--even among high level senior executives--as a "piece-of-shit-OS," explaining that “Finnish people usually have a very coarse language.”
A Symbian developer explains, “Nokia is more or less stuck with Symbian since it doesn't have the competence nor the time to make a new OS from the ground up. Its only alternative, in practice, is to go Linux, which it is of course experimenting with, but it's still not an easy path to go.
The Three Symbians
“That's one of the reasons why Nokia is investing so much in the S60 middleware used on top of Symbian. S60 is so large and complex today, that I would regard S60 an OS itself, with Symbian as the kernel. It gives Nokia more control to add and change things on its own.
“Sony Ericsson, as one of the other large Symbian owners and licensee, just bought UIQ in November last year to get control of its own flavor of Symbian. UIQ is quite similar to Nokia's S60 and should also be regarded as its own OS with Symbian as the kernel.
“From one point of view, there are no ‘Symbian’ phones in the market, but rather three incompatible and diverging OSs: NTT DoCoMo's Symbian MOAP for Asia, Nokia’s Symbian S60, and Sony Ericsson’s Symbian UIQ. 
“To make it even worse from a third party developer's point of view, Nokia and Symbian made the new S60 version 3 binary incompatible to previous versions of S60. So none of your old Symbian apps will work on any new phones (i.e. if you actually bought any :-).
“And of course UIQ has never been source code nor binary compatible with S60. But still you get the impression from analysts and media that ‘Symbian is one stable OS.
Symbian Signed
“For S60 version 3, they have introduced a new security model where it's necessary to sign all apps with VeriSign to even get them to run. Something that costs several hundreds of dollars per year, just for the certificates, and makes shareware and hobby programming almost impossible from now on.
“Some operators are requiring the phones to be locked for any apps not carrying a ‘Symbian Signed’ certificate. Which means, you have to pay for a certification process where you are checked by Symbian, why you developed the application and why you want to use certain capabilities on the phone, e.g. read and store user data, using the telephony APIs, or the WIFI capabilities etc.
“All in the name of security, but of course it will be very tough to make programs, independently, that use functionality that's not in the interest of the operators, such as non-operator controlled Voice over IP. 
“So much for independently third-party software development on Symbian compared to the ‘closed’ model used on iPhone. In practice the difference is not that big. Apple will, of course, allow close partners to develop apps like they do with iPod Games today.
Symbian Design Issues
“When it comes to the myth of Symbian being a modern and robust OS, I have several objections. Symbian is severely limited by design decisions made in the beginning of '90. The design decisions were maybe okay at that point in time, when the target was Psion's EPOC and EPOC32-based Series 3 & 5 with extreme memory and resource constraints compared with today's devices.
“I could make a very long list of the problems but I'll just summarize a few key areas:
  1. Crippled C++ support. Symbian is C++ based—at least on the surface. When EPOC32 was designed (about 1993-1994 I think), there were very few good C++ compiler with full support for the newest C++ features like exceptions. Exceptions is the main feature in C++ for correct and efficient error handling. The other alternative is to use error codes like most operating systems use in their C APIs.

    Symbian chose to select neither technique. They made their own home-cooked version of exceptions called Leaves. With an exception in C++, any memory or other resources in allocated objects are deallocated automatically in the correct order (deterministic destruction by calling each object's destructor). This makes it (relatively) easy to make correct programs in C++ for both small and large projects.

    In Symbian when a error is signaled with a leave (‘throw an exception’) no objects are deallocated. They just leak, if you don't manually record each object allocated to be cleaned up. This process is extremely tedious, error prone and boring. The result is that it's very hard and time consuming to make correct programs in Symbian, on the verge to be impossible in many cases.

    C++ is a great language because of the advanced features, like exception handling with automatic cleanup (search for RAII, Resource Allocation Is Initialization), the standard C++ library (formerly called the STL library with lots and lots of support code for handling of data in containers-like lists and maps and tree structures, strings, algorithms, support for template code and last but not the least—all the standard patterns, practices and idioms all experienced C++ programmer are using on all design problems they are faced with.

    If you remove the foundation for standard C++ development, it all falls together. Every design decision means the programmer has to think from the ground up to make a completely new architecture for the design because the normal way of thinking and the normal guarantees C++ and experience gives, doesn't apply anymore. It really turns an experienced programmer into almost a beginner with lousy tools. It's a nightmare for both programmer and development managers. 

  2. Confusing and limited string handling. There is no real support for a proper string handling. To use strings on Symbian you have to use a home-cooked and strange system of ‘descriptors.’ Every new programmer to Symbian spends the first weeks struggling just to understand how (and why) this system works.

    The reason was apparently to save a few bytes on each string. But of course, today, that's not even close to being relevant. Maybe a small point but, it's yet another point that makes Symbian hard to use, hard to understand and hard to port programs to/from other platforms. 

  3. Limited support for multi-threading. An important technique used on all other platforms but is not used on Symbian. They do have limited support for threads, but it's strongly recommended not to use threads since it ‘takes to much resources.’ That was hardly even a relevant argument in 1993 but it meant that Symbian uses ‘active objects’ instead of threads in almost all applications.

    Active objects are just a very complicated variant of cooperative multitasking, where each object runs in sequence (unnaturally split into small subtasks) and are not able to preempt each other. It takes a lot of code to make this work, just to give the result of a system that is not very responsive, hard to program and port to/from other platforms. All for the aim of saving some CPU cycles in 1993.

  4. Bad development environment. The development environment and SDK for Symbian (S60) is very strange and difficult to use. It can take several days to just make a functional installation of the SDK and development environment. My first installation a few years ago took over a week to setup and was very fragile. On the Nokia forums there are postings with recommendations on how to make a correct setup. If you do just one step in the wrong order it fucks up. You cannot use the latest version of Visual Studio but need to install Visual Studio 2003 to make it work. But everyone that does Windows programming have VS 2005 installed. Nokia also provides several commercial alternatives, ‘Carbide,’ that is based on Eclipse etc. But it is generally a very bad situation if you compare with Xcode/iPhone or other platforms.
Analysts Wrong on Symbian
“I realize the arguments above are quite technical, but they are nonetheless real and makes it very slow, error prone, and generally difficult to make applications on Symbian. 
“This is just one of the reasons I believe the analysts and media are very wrong about the outlook for iPhone. Most media in Sweden (and elsewhere) have reported that the iPhone is nothing new at all. It's mainly a nice package with limited/bad hardware and nothing particularly new on the software side.
“However, if you look at the speed and effort needed to make new applications on iPhone compared with other platforms it's two completely different worlds. You have all the Cocoa frameworks that make it possible to create applications on a level not even available for most desktops today.”  

“Most people don't realize the huge difference in development speed (time to market), ability to make more advanced and useful applications with a greater user experience (read: Core Animation and other Leopard frameworks), code quality and maintenance ability—when you have full support for modern high-level languages and frameworks.
Existing Mobile Platforms vs OS X
“Of course, this is the same for most embedded programming projects: set-top boxes, mobile phones, stereo equipment, industrial equipment. But with phones, you are beginning to think about them as a small desktop computer and everyone tries to put in real applications in them.
“With Symbian (as well as WinCE, Palm OS, and I suppose also the Linux phones because they probably have a very limited number of Linux frameworks installed because of memory restrictions etc) you have a big problem to deliver on the marketing hype and media expectations because of all limitations. This is one of the reasons all mobile services are failing to badly—it's simply to hard and complicated to deliver the market expectations with today's platforms. 
Five Years Ahead
“OS X and iPhone don't have these limitations. It's one of the reasons I believe Steve Jobs is more or less right in iPhone being 5 years ahead of the competition--of course there is slight marketing hype as well, but not that much an exaggeration as the media and analysts think. Making high quality, advanced applications with a superior user experience will be fast and easy with OS X. On other platforms it's like competing with a small Fiat car in a Formula 1 race against Ferrari and Williams. 
“OS X is probably only programmable in Objective C instead of C++, because of the Cocoa frameworks being used. But Objective-C is famous for being easy to program and you can freely mix Objective C and C++ in the same program. In Leopard Apple also introduces Objective-C 2.0 with garbage collection and lots of new stuff that makes it even better than C++ in some respects. And the Cocoa frameworks are world-class on desktop computer—they were even famous in the NeXTSTEP versions. 
“So when you put all this together, Apple has sharp weapons and shining armor to compete with lesser equipped competitors for future smartphone apps and wireless services. Most analysts and media don't have enough technical competence and knowledge to realize this.”
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