Symbian must die.

Symbian Menu

Nokia’s 2010 flagship is, in many ways, a masterpiece. From its unibody aluminum design to its groundbreaking penta-band 3G radio to the high-spec onboard camera to the full-size HDMI port to the innovative USB host mode, the N8 can’t help but impress.

That is, until you actually start using it — because unfortunately, it runs Symbian.

It’s not that Symbian is technically lacking as a mobile OS, it’s just so incredibly antiquated that at this point it stands pretty much a zero percent chance of gaining new users — less than zero if you consider some former Symbian evangelists of note who have jumped ship for Android, myself included.

Using Android full-time for the past month has given me a fresh perspective on Symbian, and it doesn’t compare well at all.

Take the main menu above for example. I’m sure Nokia has paid big bucks to a team of in-house usability experts to produce this “optimal” layout of icons. Too bad that (1) there’s no easy option for alphabetizing the icons without displaying them as a list, and (2) it suggests to the user that the icons outside of the Application folder aren’t actually apps…?

Once a user figures out how to organize this menu by manually dragging things around they’ll realize it’s about as easy to customize as the Start Menu in Windows XP — i.e., a royal pain in the ass.

As for installing new software, here again Symbian makes a woeful first impression. Upon launching the Ovi Store on the N8 a user quickly finds out that it isn’t actually the Ovi Store app but a link to download it from Nokia. Presumably this is by design so that the user gets the proper version for their geographic location and/or carrier. But it’s a nuisance at best and a usability disaster at worst.

Apple would never ship a locked-down Internet appliance with something so inelegant; yet kludges like this seem to be the best that Nokia can fight back with, at least on the software side of things.

And then there’s the web browser itself. It’s barely usable, and inexcusable on a flagship connected device. Savvy Symbian experts will install Opera Mini or Mobile straightaway, but they shouldn’t have to.

It’s not just me. As an informal test over the weekend I handed my trial N8 over in turn to my nephew and two nieces. The results?

  • My  8 year-old nephew: “How do you work this?”
  • My 11 year-old niece: “I don’t like this.”
  • My 13 year-old niece: “I can’t figure this out…”

Granted, children aren’t exactly the target market for Nseries devices. On the other hand, my older niece is a BlackBerry user, and on my Nexus One my younger niece managed to take a photo of me, caption & tag it, and was but a tap away from posting it to Facebook and Twitter before I could snatch it away from her.

Given all the hype that Nokia’s N900 was getting this time last year it’s bewildering to me that they’re still putting any effort into Symbian at all, rather than fast-tracking their Linux Foundation-approved mobile OS. Symbian does have an almost ten-year legacy of applications and (among other things) full support for SyncML, but for me it’s day has clearly come and gone. From here on in, it’s MeeGo or no-go.


  1. I admit being WAY late to the i-___ game, but my now eight year old just opened her new iPod Touch, the first such device in our home.

    I installed Angry Birds after hearing Leo Laporte rant about it for weeks now, and bought her the latest Glee soundtrack. But that was the extent of the introduction. She has since been taking pictures, tagging them, changed her wallpaper, figured out video recording, the maps app… and installed a drawing app from onboard iPod App Store only needing my password. She even realized the iBooks app included a free book, and once she asked me if the requester deserved an OK tap, downloaded the vintage Winnie The Pooh book.

    I really had nothing to do with her user experience and she’s running fine with it. Quite amazing.

  2. Symbian is crap, I can’t wait for the day I finally buy my N1 and toss this piece of legacy out the window. I just can’t understand why Nokia will insist on going into a battle as fierce as the smartphone one w/ a dinosaur like Symbian.

  3. AC:

    As I read your entry, I was reminded of my previous phone, the LG Chocolate. The interface was OK, but the Bell web browser was awkward and unusable, even for a 2006-era smartphone. A child wouldn’t have liked it, and I doubt any adults did, either.

    You’d think Nokia would be anxious to beat the other phone OS’s out there, especially with Microsoft entering the market, but maybe it’s just me?


  4. The only problem with Android is its not accessible enough, oh yeah they say it is, but its a sad half-baked attempt, I had a HTC Magic+ for 3 days, I HATED IT! I’ve also tried a Motorola Charm, same thing, at least Symbian has TALKS, & its at least basically usable, although most geekier blind/visually impaired people that used to use Symbian based phones including the NOKIA E71x & 5800, have turned to the Apple iPhone, myself included, I was for many years a NOKIA addict, (17 Years infact) & for the last 7, I loved & promoted Symbian based phones to my friends & on my blogs..

    Even the arcaic Motorols Q9H (GSM model) Q9C (CDMA model) series comboined with Mobilespeak is faster, more relaible & dependable than Android with all the stupid “accessibility downloads” you must do in order to even have the accessibility function on a Android phone available, talk about being half-baked, you cant even use the phone right out of the box!
    At least the Nokia E71x has even BASIC TTS available right out of the box, without any downloading!

    I honestly gave Android a try, but I just couldent get it to be accessible enough for my needs, even my trusty, ancient, NOKIA 6620 with TALKS 3.0 is more accessible!

    Until Android Developers make an HONEST, concerted effort on accessibility, they are missing a huge chunk of users, even more than that, they are NOT being compliant with the ADA. Till then, I’m not even going to waste my time even considering an android product..

  5. BTW, I’d LOVE to trial an N8, I’m even waiting till Rogers brings the price down or it goes on the “out of Warranty Program” then I’m wanting to get one.

  6. I was actually thinking of you over the weekend when my favourite BBC tech show had a feature on accessibility and touch-screen devices. Here’s a link to it, but you’ll have to endure an ad first — sorry.

    Hopefully my humble site passes the accessibility test; if there’s something I need to do please let me know!

  7. Duuuuuuuuuuude. Say it isn’t so. I’m still on my n97 mini, hacked the hell of of it. Installed SPB Mobile shell, and it is awesome! smooth, fast, intuitive. Symbian is still by far the best, most stable, energy efficient mobile OS available. What is lacking is the UI, however, with SPB installed, well that just isn’t so anymore. It is also now available for the N8. just saying.

  8. So like I promised, I finally got me a new phone. But unfortunately (or is it fortunately), it’s not Android. And it’s one of the best purchasing decisions I’ve made in a long time.

    Buying the N900 has really affirmed my belief in Nokia as the best handset maker in the world. Also, using Maemo has actually opened my eyes to what is really wrong with Symbian and why it must either be completely overhauled or allowed to die a peaceful death.

    As for Android, I’ll still be getting myself a device running it later on. But for now, suffice to say Nokia will do well replacing Symbian completely with Maemo/Meego or rebuild it from scratch…

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