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?”
“Are you super sure that you want it to connect to a secure site?”
“Would you like me to try to remember your choice?”
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.”
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.
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.