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Atom-based Symbian OS to spawn next-gen CE apps

Posted: 30 Apr 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Atom? Symbian OS? consumer electronics?

Will the Symbian OS, like competitor Android, help give birth to a new generation of non-mobile phone consumer devices?

"Yes, our code can do that," responded Lee Williams, executive director of Symbian Foundation during an interview at the Nokia Developer Summit. "The hard part is getting investment and business plan in place."

In his recent blog, Williams noted that "a few of the bright and capable guys in the [S60 on Symbian Customer Operations] team have Symbian compiling via GCC (GNU Compiler Collection) and now running on an off-the-shelf Atom-based motherboard from Intel."

He revealed that a small team at Symbian succeeded several years ago in running the Symbian OS on an x86 CPU. Using that as a base, "We developed drivers for Atom and went up the stack," said Williams. The development effort showed that a small team was able to port to Atom using the GCC.

The prospect of Symbian running on Intel's Atom could "tickle the imagination of many products managers," Williams said during the interview.

Imagine a low-power computing device that draws minimum heat, comes with RF connectivity, running completely object-oriented software and embracing standards and Web-based technologies, Williams said.

Are we talking about something like a netbook?

It doesn't have to be, said Williams. "I want the device to [have] a heartbeat," meaning "always on," [and] I want a device which doesn't even require you to close its lid." Symbian could enable a device that's much different from a PC or a netbook.

The Symbian Foundation is currently "in discussions with multiple parties," according to Williams, who declined to elaborate.

Will it fly?
Two nagging questions remain: First, Symbian has yet to create a true, open source community around its OS. It hopes to by early 2010. Meanwhile, Google's Android is gaining momentum in terms of market perception.

Second, except for Nokia, few mobile handset vendors (Panasonic, Siemens and LG) have scored a success in developing their own S60 phones. Why would they now want to try S60 all over again for their consumer devices?

Symbian forces also have a lot on their plate. Now a non-profit organization, Symbian members want to unleash a collection of commercial software to the open source community, possibly before the end of this year.

Does the organization have enough bandwidth to handle a major rewrite to make its OS portable to non-mobile phone devices? Isn't there huge amount of work necessary simply to make a user interface scale to bigger screens?

The Symbian Foundation's catalyst/futurist, David Wood, remains optimistic. Responding to such concerns in his blog, Wood noted that the portability of the upper layers of S60 have improved with each new release of the S60. "There are specific improvements regarding support for different screen sizes in the new Symbian Platform releases," he wrote.

But naysayers continue to ask who would want to use S60 applications on a non-phone device? They note that many OEMs struggled to simply put S60 phones on the market, while many gave up after one or two devices.

Acknowledging "lots of struggles along the way" for OEMs, Wood noted that "there was a great deal of reflection, too, about the causes of these difficulties. And many improvements were made as result."

The bottom line is that, unlike Android, where everything needs to start from the scratch, Symbian might be able to turn its own growing pains into an advantage. "Improvements were made in the underlying platform and in the professional services companies that can help OEMs to create devices based on the Symbian platform," Wood said.

It remains unclear so far whether consumer electronics vendors will buy that argument.

- Junko Yoshida
EE Times

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