Symbian's Upgrade Path Might Lead Nowhere

Nokia announced its latest operating system this week at Nokia World. Symbian^3 will appear on a number of smartphones due this year. But what is its future?

Eric Zeman

September 15, 2010

2 Min Read
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If there's one thing Android and iOS have going for them is that they both offer upgrade paths. Users of the two-year-old iPhone 3G, for example, are able to update their device from the stock iOS 2.0 to iOS 4.1 and still get most of the new features offered. Same goes for the iPhone 3GS, which gets all the new features of iOS 4.1, even though it shipped with iOS 3.0.

Think of all the Android handsets out there. The Motorola Droid, for example, shipped with Android 2.0. It was upgraded to Android 2.1, and recently to Android 2.2. Each upgrade offered end users more features and extended the useful life of the handset.

Having a viable upgrade path is a key component to today's smartphones. That's why I am concerned about Symbian's apparent lack of an upgrade path.

This week, Nokia announced three new handsets running Symbian^3. Nokia made no mention of Symbian^4, other than to note that it is a work in progress. I reached out to Nokia for a comment on the future upgradeability of the N8, E7, C7 and C6-01.

Nokia replied, "As the S^4 platform is still in contribution phase through the Symbian Foundation, it’s too early to comment on upgrade paths. Today, we’re talking about the compelling experiences found in Nokia’s first Symbian^3 smartphones." That's some thick bull honkey right there.

Historically, Nokia devices have not been updated beyond the core system software with which they shipped. For example, a device that shipped with S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 1 could not update to S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 2. (Feature packs are akin to the difference between Windows Mobile 6.1 and Windows Mobile 6.5, etc.). In other words, users of the S60 3.1 device were stuck with what they got.

All the other major smartphone operating systems offer core system upgrades: Android, BlackBerry OS, iOS, webOS, and Windows Phone. Updates are an essential part of how smartphones work, not only to offer bug fixes, but to introduce new features, and develop brand equity and loyal users.

What's most worrisome is that the Symbian Foundation has promised that Symbian^4 will be a "clean break" from the current operating system, meaning any applications developed for S60 5th Edition -- a.k.a., Symbian^1 -- won't work on Symbian^4 devices and vice versa.

If the current Symbian^3 devices can't update beyond Symbian^3 -- and thereby gain new features and capabilities -- what's the point in buying one?

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