Symbian Won

by @edent | # # # # # | 8 comments | Read ~40,051 times.

I was working in the mobile phone industry just as smartphones were taking off. I saw the Palm Pilot rise and fall. I witnessed NEC and Sagem and a host of companies launch smartphones and then disappear. But the greatest tragedy of them all was Nokia and their Symbian Operating System.

(Actually, Symbian’s ownership and relationship with Nokia is complex. But let’s gloss over that for now.)

Symbian was, for its time, a brilliant OS. It ran 3D games smoothly, had terrific hardware support, a decent ecosystem for developers. And it was bloody annoying for users.

Every few minutes, Symbian would interrupt you to ask “Are you sure you want this app to connect to the Internet?”

Early mobile phone asking for permission to access the Internet.

“Are you super sure that you want it to connect to a secure site?”

"Opening a secure connection. Yes or No?"

“Would you like me to try to remember your choice?”
Network access. Ask every time, disallow, ask first time?

On and on it went. And then, with great fanfare, Apple and Google disrupted them.

Apple’s model was “We have a curated store of artisanal apps, each one backed up by a legal entity with a DUNS number. We check them so you don’t have to. Everything on our store is trustworthy.”

Ha!

Google’s model was “We’ll tell you what kind of crap this app will use. Don’t like it? Don’t use it! YOLO!”

That, of course, led to ostensibly harmless apps asking for ridiculously invasive permissions.
A terrifying list of permissions.

Because, as it turns out, a Libertarian free-for-all doesn’t work. It requires rational people to have an educated understanding of the risks they face. Millions of people installed dodgy apps, saw the one-time prompt, and lost control of their data.

With the latest releases of Android and iOS, we’re back to where we started. Both now prompt you the first time an app asks for access. Both give you regular reminders of which apps may be snaffling your data. Both let you manage access and selectively deny apps.

There are many (many!) reasons why Symbian lost the Great Mobile Wars. But it is somehow fitting to see the return of design decisions they made decades ago.

8 thoughts on “Symbian Won

  1. I like this – although perhaps the alternative models to Symbian’s “ask about everything at time of use” aren’t completely cavalier. There’s a risk that just as people didn’t read Android’s “everything up-front list”, they’ll click through the questions just as unthinkingly.


  2. App stores and process didn’t solve the trust problem back then either. While the endless prompts were annoying, they provided a level of literacy and transparency to the issues network computing and 3rd party code presents.


  3. Apple’s is like the mob wanting a huge cut for the “privilege” of being in their ecosystem. All about privacy while shaking down hardworking developers. At the end of the day it’s a phone, people should become more granularly cognizant of WTF they’re carrying around with them 24/7.

  4. The fact that I understand this makes me feel old. shkspr.mobi/blog/2020/06/s…

  5. Having had a Symbian Series 60 device before the modern assortment of mobile communicators—as we called them back then—arrived on the scene, I feel this is a pretty fair assessment. shkspr.mobi/blog/2020/06/s…

  6. Kant says:

    Reminds of that old adage of “those who don’t learn from UNIX are doomed to repeat it”

    shkspr.mobi/blog/2020/06/s…

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