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Q&A: When Mobility and Open Source Collide

Symbian OS powers more than 200-million mobile devices, and as Executive Director of the Symbian Foundation it's one of Lee Williams's job to take the operating system to open source.

Dr. Dobb's: When it comes to mobile devices, open source has gained real traction.

Williams: Yes, open source and community-style software development is probably the single best way to create and leverage value in the mobile marketplace. The characteristics of this marketplace, one which is rapidly colliding with so many other adjacent technology and consumer markets, demand that companies find a way to leverage open-source concepts and models.

Dr. Dobb's: Near Field Communication is coming on strong.

Williams: NFC chips let devices be used as a mobile wallet or boarding pass for planes. These types of products already exist in Japan, so it's only a matter of time before we see them appear in other parts of the world.

Dr. Dobb's: What emerging mobile technologies should we be keeping our eye on?

Williams: 3G bandwidth and coverage continues to grow and become affordable and ubiquitous. LTE (Long-Term Evolution) is one technology to watch as it establishes itself as a key standard for delivering even higher bandwidths of data. Smartphones are getting advanced features more quickly than the advances in battery technology; we need to find new ways to maximize battery life. SMP (Symmetric Multi-Processing) does this by powering up individual processors only when they are required and powering them down when the device is idle or executing less performance-critical tasks. Advanced graphics and transaction technologies are also worth watching.

Dr. Dobb's:'Converged mobile devices'. What are they and what unique challenges do they pose for software developers?

Williams: A converged mobile device is a product that integrates different consumer electronic product functions such as a digital camera, digital music player, video media player, digital video recorder, messaging device, internet appliance, and handheld GPS into one multifaceted unit. With so many different types of capabilities or even a few of them in one product, the potential for creating unique features that a consumer will value is extreme. However, with this comes a number of challenges. One key challenge is to focus on good design. It is better to make sure that product designers, software developers, and content and service providers focus on keeping things simple, and doing a few things well, vs. simply exposing a myriad of functions and requiring a consumer to constantly learn and relearn the capabilities of a converged product.

Another challenge has to do with remembering interoperability demands. Converged products often interact with the world, and other products in a way that only a person or another converged product can. It's not enough to provide a new software application for this type of product and force a user to go find it every day, a developer would need to focus on the whole experience. The web browser is a good example, on a pc it may make sense to ask a user to find, click, type, and browse the web or look for a service. In a mobile, converged product, you need to help the user be present with the service even or especially when they are driving or have the product in a pocket or handbag, and requiring them to constantly select 'yes' or to type in forms etc. are real headaches for a consumer.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges faced by software developers is their route to consumers and ultimately revenue. Many developers have created good applications but getting them out to a global market place is not easy. It can take months of negotiations with major companies to even get a chance to be exposed to a consumer. The Symbian Foundation platform already provides developers with access to a global market with about a quarter of a billion devices shipped worldwide and support for 50 different languages and many different product form factors. We are focused on helping developers get their applications to these users by giving them a one stop drop in to an applications inventory or electronic warehouse. We will not provide a store front, but will help the community create multiple online stores from which they can generate revenue for themselves and the developer. These stores will end up being highly differentiated, so as to appeal to the broadest range of consumer tastes and interests.

Dr. Dobb's: Power, security, user interfaces. Can you rank -- and discuss -- these in terms of the challenges for software developers?

Williams: UI, Security, Power.

Consumers first of all want a great experience with their mobile product and an easy to use and attractive UI can help deliver this. This does not necessarily mean the UI has to be touch enabled or that a UI sits in software alone. Also, display size is becoming increasingly important. The trend is toward both large and small displays and form factors. For example, business executives that send lots of emails are rarely content using virtual keyboards offered by large touch screen display devices, opting instead to use a product with a physical keyboard. At the other end of the spectrum, you see hoards of teenagers in the U.S., Europe and Asia happily texting one handed, using predictive text. UIs must therefore be discussed in the context of a products form factor. A mass market mobile OS needs to be able to support several different form factors, display sizes, and input methods to cater to individual tastes. Symbian OS enables this type of differentiation, which you can see throughout our communities product portfolios.

Security is the next most important concern as consumers carry a lot of personal information on these products and interact with personal content and services. Also, to be always connected, you will seamlessly roam between many different type of operator networks. To ensure the highest level of support and quality of service, these operators require some form of control over their network environment. Good and flexible security becomes an imperative for using this type of product on the worlds networks, and with the internet's plethora of services.

Power comes last but not least. You cannot diminish the importance of efficient power utilization to most consumers. I would argue one of the fastest ways that a mobile product, no matter how capable, falls out of favor with a consumer is if it cannot last days between charges. We also need to consider the fact that mobile product features and needs are becoming computationally intensive at a faster rate than battery technology is advancing and becoming more capable.

So what challenges do each of these areas present to developers?

With UIs developers need to remind themselves to 'keep things simple and useful'. Focus on the whole experience, meaning you need to be inclusive of display sizes, input methods, and form factors when you design and develop your applications and services. This will ensure users have a positive experience interacting with their application, while making it easy to use the application again and again.

When it comes to security developers need to pay special attention to how they design their application. Leverage the certificate signing and authorization models. They do benefit consumers, if even in indirect ways. Different mobile platforms offer different security models and not knowing how best to design applications with these will lead to reduced confidence in their products from handset manufacturers, operators and ultimately consumers.

It's primarily up to the mobile platform to manage power effectively not the developer. For example, Symbian OS was built-up from its Psion heritage, where two AA batteries would power a personal organizer for over two months. Bringing this technology to mobile phones means Symbian OS is arguably the most power efficient mobile OS on the market. That said, developers should make safe calls when developing applications, don't look to avoid a public API, and focus on not having processes running when not being accessed or used.

Dr. Dobb's: Location-based applications and games. Is this the future of mobile devices?

Williams: Location-based applications are certainly a key part for the future of mobile devices. Games and different forms of entertainment and content access will also be more prevalent. I envision more or less an explosion of social networking concepts and services running on mobile products. Gone is the day of going back to a PC for an online social experience. What you can do with location aware applications and content when combined with connectivity and the rich amount of data and people present on the internet is truly incredible. This has the potential to forever change the way people interact with the world and others in their lives.

Another area where we will see growth is in mobile payment concepts. NFC (Near Field Communication) chips in devices, allow them to be used as a mobile wallet or boarding pass for planes. These types of products already exist in Japan and our member companies have already had years of experience creating these types of solutions, so it's only a matter of time before we see them appear in other parts of the world.

The great thing about the foundation membership base and our increasingly open platform offering is that the future of mobile products and services is in the hands of developers, so anything is possible.

Dr. Dobb's: Cross-platform applications in the mobile space. Will we ever see this?

Williams: We already have them on the Symbian OS offering. Open C, Java, .Net CF, Flash, and WebKit or ECMA script based applications can cross over and are portable across several mobile platforms. These technologies provide investment protection and reach for developers and service providers. We are enhancing these offerings by continuing to integrate the latest versions of these runtimes, and are expanding this functionality with QT libraries, Adobe AIR technology and others. There are also a number of companies that have created emulators or specific runtimes which allow more applications to cross platforms. A company called StyleTap has a Palm emulator that allows you to run thousands of Palm applications on Symbian products and a company called Red Five Labs has a runtime for Symbian OS which ensures Microsoft .net applications can be fully supported.

Dr. Dobb's: There are currently more mobile phone users than Internet users. Where is the opportunity?

Williams: With over 4 billion mobile phone users worldwide, it makes for a pretty attractive commercial opportunity for companies that want to increase their market potential. The footprint is growing and now driving the number of internet users, as many people around the world are not buying and cannot afford a PC. Instead they are opting for a mobile product to put them online. There is a challenge is that the mobile marketplace requires that you be able to participate with a number of different types of companies and suppliers. This includes silicon suppliers, operators, device manufacturers, and application, content, and service providers. The Symbian Foundation is helping to do this by ensuring we lower the barrier for entry for software developers. We are a coordination point and hub of access to all of these different companies. A single source for information, dialog, and business development with a large collection of these companies. That presents a unique opportunity to go get to this marketplace and to sustain investments in the development of their applications.

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