Symbian Tenacity

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I’ve written stuff on Symbian before. Probably bored everyone to death. But after two weeks using Symbian almost exclusively, I have to say this old, aging, decrepit and useless OS is… anything but.

 

Symbian Belle, (Nokia Belle as Nokia would force you to call it) is in its final forms with ‘Feature Pack 2’ if you own a Nokia 808 PureView, 603, 700 or 701, and ‘Refresh’ on the E7, N8 gang from 2010 ish. However, with a flurry of little but important updates recently, and with way more stability than its initial launch S^3 version, I really do have to scratch my head as to why it is such a bemoaned and belittled smartphone OS. What, exactly, is wrong with it?

Not very much, is the best answer I can give you. Or to put it another way, Symbian is like the Rolling Stones, a classic but aging rock band. Not exactly trendy and what the cool kids are listening to right now, but still tremendous when you blast ‘Street Fighting Man’ at full volume. Compared with this we have the OSes of today, your iOS, your Android, your Jelly Bean with Key Lime Pie on the side. (What’s after that, Lollipop? Lemon Meringue?)  To me, these oh-so-popular OSes are like Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. Sure their music is bang up-to-date, but… oh please. It’s feisty, and it’s poppy and it’s fun, but has it stood the test of time? And no one is going switch on BBC Radio 1 or Z100 and hear The Who or the Stones instead of Bieber or Gaga, right? What are the cool kids listening to these days? Yeah, exactly. Nothing wrong with them, just not for me thanks very much.

I feel that this music analogy fits in well with my comparison. I’ve done a little messing around with iOS6 and Jelly Bean and I have to say, yes, they are very pretty, quick, slick and sexy. But to me, they don’t meld with what I’m actually after. Some might say, well, you’re a Nokia fan, and Nokia don’t make Android phones. But what if they did? Ha, a hypothetical scenario that will never exist, I’m sure. Not while Mr “I used to work at Microsoft” is CEO anyway.

 

So why Symbian in June 2013? Well, why do I prefer the David Bowie over One Direction? I love the mature quality of the system, the fact that it comes with real bells and whistles that I actually use and find useful, such as an FM transmitter, a file browser, an internet radio, an amazing camera, superb battery life, real true multi-tasking, and most important of all, beautiful and top-dog build quality. A Nokia phone feels… premium. In ways even that those who look at Symbian with disdain could agree with. Even those guys have to admit (albeit secretly) that Nokia sure know how to make a decent phone in terms of hardware. I’m not an enormous fan of Windows Phone, but despite that, I can still see quality almost literally oozing out of the ports and speaker grilles of the Lumia 920, 925 and 928. I have only felt like that about one Android device, and it is aptly named: the HTC One. This is a phone I could possibly consider as a main device – it really is a thing of beauty. Except that I’m still not hankering after an Android experience. Will I ever? Highly doubtful.

 

That Nokia 808 PureView hardware is just wonderful, with an excellent loudspeaker, sublime Rich Recording microphone, beautiful bright curved-glass screen, and all button and knobs made with just as much care and attention to detail. Under the curved glass, Symbian Belle FP2 is slick. Symbian looks good now; inviting, engaging, clear. And Symbian does the job without a shower of unnecessary glitter and lasers. (Hover-view? It’s got ‘gimmick’ written all over it!)

Symbian may not be the most prevalent or leading-edge operating system, and it has received its fair share of negative press in the past. But I really enjoy using my 808 PureView, and also my E6 and E7 the past two weeks; maybe Symbian is just overtly familiar at this point, like going back to your favourite pub. You know exactly where the toilets are located, you know the barman by name, and you know he only stocks ready salted crisps so don’t even bother asking for Doritos. Going with Android or iOS for me at this point would be like reluctantly going into the hottest nightclub in town, while wearing my brown cords and M&S jacket and trying really hard to enjoy and dance to the indecipherable din, while having absolutely no idea where I’d go to spend a penny, or even realise that it’s way too trendy to even have toilets.

 

Nokia and Accenture are doing a surprising job of propping Symbian up and it cannot be argued that the wonderful 41MP sensor on the 808 PureView, with all the settings and possible configurations, put it ahead of the rest in terms of imaging. When I walk into a phone shop with the 808 in my pocket I can’t help but think, yeah, all very nice, very flashy, but I have the best camera in this place. And I can also tweet quickly, update a Facebook status quickly, email whomever speedily, shoot off a text, edit a photo and do anything else I’d use a smartphone for just as well as any of the super-popular ‘next big thing’ phones that take up the displays. My 808, my E7, my E6 can all do what I’d do with an Android or an iPhone, just maybe a little bit less quickly and with a little less flash and pzazz. Remember, these activities have been the kinds of activities that made people want (if not need) smartphones in the first place. The kind of most-used features that Nokia touted with the N95 back in 2007, and that others have taken and put on steroids. But I don’t need a phone that’s on steroids, and I don’t need a billion apps. Oh hang on, yes, there is… I just checked. There’s a McDonald’s app. Not for Symbian, but for other platforms. Hmm yes, that’s really vital for my app inventory, now I really feel like I’m missing out! Sure, apps are what made the iPhone and Android OS popular beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and for the most part, rightly so. The list of available apps for these two platforms is nothing short of staggering, but when it comes to apps, I find myself just content with the dozen or so that I have. Does that make me a luddite? I’m not so sure.

But when I boot up my 808 and look through my custom-made folders to find Nokia Maps, Nokia Drive, Whatsapp, FourSquare, Nokia Public Transport, PhotoFunia, FlickrUp, Vimeo, Dropian (Dropbox), Skype, Spotify, Soundtracker, Shazam, fMobi (Facebook)… I actually realise that I’m not really missing anything. Sure, if I need to check my bank balance, it would be lovely to be able to boot up the bank’s app, but there isn’t one. If I wanted to quickly check if there are any decent shows on Broadway going cheap, I can’t use the TKTS app, because there isn’t one. If I wanted to share decent photos that have been rendered into awfulness by some odd ‘Two Ronnies’ 1970s filter… well I can’t because Symbian doesn’t have that app.

 

But I have everything else I actually need and use on a day-to-day basis, so I am not, for a moment, longing for apps that aren’t available. In my mind, it’s like the “app party” is over; in the years 2008 to 2011 when iOS and Android took first and second place over Symbian with their 1.8 gazillion apps in their respective stores it was as if that was all that mattered in the world. Who’s got the most apps? Which store is the biggest? Who cares?! I certainly didn’t. The app party was neither vital nor a requisite to mobile happiness for me.

Symbian had a low point during this time in its transition from button-happy S60 to full touch S^3, and I will not defend it. Factory-resetting my girlfriend’s E73 and then N8 almost every month became tedious and reminded me of Windows 95/98 crashing all the bloody time. But to me now, in 2013, when apps are not important but battery life is, when having the thinnest, lightest smartphone isn’t important but an incredible, world’s number 1 camera is, when not having a 1080p 5” screen but one that is 100% usable in bright sunlight while being virtually scratch-resistant let alone not cracking when dropped is… well, those are solid reasons why I still think Symbian phones such as the E7 and the 808 PureView are more relevant and brilliant than ever. And Belle Refresh and FP2 have never been more reliable and crash-free.

 

If I had tried to use my E6 and E7 for long periods of time and felt that too much was missing, then this post would be all about the 808 PureView. But even those older models, running Belle Refresh, not even Belle FP2, have still allowed me to do what I want on the go, and in a way that is simple, effective and wonderfully comfortable and enjoyable. Those two different but equally easy-to-use qwerty keyboards make messaging and tweeting all the more joyful experiences. The experiences are made even better by knowing that these devices are over two years old (give or take) and they still work just as I would expect them to, without any lag or crashing or confusion.

The problem with Symbian these days is not with the OS itself, nor with the lack of massive feature-rich updates from Nokia. The problem with Symbian is with the perception of it from many tech writers of the modern day, and the mobile networks. They all just refuse to acknowledge that this old beast is even worth looking at, like the very word “Symbian” causes the network CEO and board of directors to snigger and giggle around the large mahogany table, as if they were a bunch of eight-year olds taking a quiz and one of them farted. Too many tech bloggers from popular and influential sites hurriedly threw Symbian on the trash heap the second Stephen Elop’s lips began to form the words: “Win….dow…s Ph…o…ne…” – and never gave it a chance since. When Nokia won, yes won the Best New Device award at MWC last year for the 808 PureView, it was immediately denounced in the blogosphere as a worthless piece of dinosaur tech because it was running Symbian, as if Symbian Belle wasn’t a decent, mature smartphone operating system but actually the same software that ran a 1986 washing-machine.

 

Sigh. To them, they must have asked themselves, what would the point be of writing about Symbian on a 41MP smartphone when nobody has even heard of the smartphone’s OS – Symbian? iOS and Android were and still are well-known operating systems, (I’d even go as far as to say they’re household names now), but Symbian came from an era when people would ask, “What mobile phone have you got these days?” and get the answer, “Vodaphone” as if that was both a manufacturer of handsets and an operating system! Sigh again. But I really couldn’t care less what people think because I know what my Symbian phones are capable of and how fun and satisfying they are to use, and how reliable and effective they are at doing what I need to get done. Symbian’s light might be fading, but it sure isn’t my finger on the dimmer switch.

As you might know, another smartphone operating system is very close to my heart, namely MeeGo-Harmattan that powers the Nokia N9 and N950, and which is soon to be ‘reimagined’ in the form of Sailfish from Finnish startup, Jolla. MeeGo will always be my Number 1, so please don’t be confused by my crazed rambling here about Symbian. Think of it as me pronouncing my love for the Beatles, while the whole time liking the Stones a little bit more. I can still throw the volume up to 11 while listening to ‘The White Album’, but I can just as happily blast ‘Exile on Main St.’ into my ears as if there’s no tomorrow.

 

And if you’re reading this and have no idea what ‘Exile on Main St.’ is, or who the Stones are for that matter, well, I hope you enjoy your Justin Bieber laser show.

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