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E is for Extinct. Or is it? (Part 1)

In late 2014 it is becoming more and more difficult to remember a time when the device in your pocket that you used every day was more-than-likely a phone that ran on Symbian. Nokia once had it all tied up: by 2010, they were selling around 110 million phones around the world, running on Symbian. That seems so surreal. To think that more people on this planet were using Nokia phones than iPhones or Samsungs. Weird, right? Think back even further to a time before Apple talked about “an internet device, a music player, and a phone” in January 2007, and you hark back to a time when there was no Windows 8, no Instagram, no Justin Bieber, and no bloody twerking. Ah, memories.

But coming back to the present for a second (because you can’t reminisce all day can you?) we are surrounded by large, touch-screen smartphone slabs that do pretty much anything, and none of them are running on Symbian. They run on iOS. They run on Android. And one or two even run on Windows Phone. (Tee hee.) But the percentage of phones that run on Symbian in the latter part of 2014 is absolutely miniscule compared to the heady days of yore.Symbian_Nokia

 

One of the reasons (and it is not insignificant) is that Nokia’s phone-making department is now owned by Microsoft, and if you’ve lived in a cave for the past three and a half years, you won’t know that in February of 2011, Nokia announced that it would be running Microsoft’s awesome and totally ready-to-go OS, Windows Phone 7. Yes, it was feature-full and 100% ready for the masses, and the first Nokia Windows Phones were released almost immediately following this famous infamous declaration of dependence.

Hmmm. I say almost immediately, and what I actually meant was, er, about eight months later.

Yeah, there was that.

Anyway, what occurred between the winter of 2011 and later in the, well, winter of 2011 was the indisputable killing of Nokia’s own Symbian. This uplifting, cheery tale has already been documented in many places on the internet, so I’m not going to churn up plummeting sales figures, badly-executed executive decisions, nor am I even going to mention Trojan horse. Oh, bugger, I just did. Well that was bound to happen. This is a post about Symbian for Pete’s sake!

What transpired during 2011 in the world of Nokia was not all that fun. Especially for the the people who had worked their fingers to the bone at Nokia and were about to face the cold cruel winds of unemployment. But at least the Nokia N9 was launched, and thank the sweet Lord it was. But as for Symbian, it was on a slippery slope, heading toward ever-thinner sales results. Some would argue that Symbian only found itself slipping and sliding down such slope because a certain hand-gesturing, bespectacled CEO had given it a hearty – albeit badly-timed – burning shove in the back. Perhaps. And there are some who would argue that by shoving, the CEO actually did us all a favour.

 

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The devices that Nokia had heralded with such gusto at Nokia World in September 2010 (just a few months before the announcement to switch to Windows Phone 7) all ran the ‘new’ Symbian, dubbed S^3, and promised all kinds of iPhone-attacking features such as hardware qwerty keyboards nobody wanted to use anymore, terrible EDoF cameras that produced truly mediocre imaging results (no macro shots on these beauties!) very average battery life, an app store missing ‘important’ apps, and best of all: no US carrier endorsements, so nobody could buy them at a subsidised, on-contract price! What’s not to love?!

Seriously though, it did seem excruciatingly palmface-worthy at the time; all of the US networks were that chickenshit, that they wouldn’t even carry the Nokia N8, the 12MP imaging king of 2011. No, the only way to purchase the N8 (or the E7, C7, or C6-01) was through Amazon et al, at full blown retail price, off-contract, and America doesn’t really work like that. I purchased an N8 for my wife for $399 on Amazon in January 2011, and later in the year, an E7 for myself at $350. There were immediate advantages to having a phone that wasn’t tied to a contract of course, but for the American masses, no Nokia for you! Americans *still* like to buy their phones by the rule book, a rule book that seems to have been written solely by the four networks themselves. You want a phone? You go straight to the networks’ retail stores and sign a 2-year contract of course. And that near-$100 a month bill you are paying? Yeah, that covers some of the remaining $450 of the new phone’s cost you just “purchased” for $299, and some of it goes towards your monthly plan, but loads of it goes into the networks’ profit margins. Congratulations for helping those poor, starving network executive board directors out.

But I digress yet again. Nokia’s new line-up looked good at the time; the E7 was an example of why Nokia used to be great. The physical keyboard was hidden behind a lovely 4-inch screen that ‘swept’ up and out of the way at a truly inviting angle, and the phone, housed in smooth aluminium, felt for want of a better phrase, very premium indeed.

Same with the N8. The camera bump was a protrusion, but once you saw your photos on your laptop, you accepted just how much that extra thickness was totally worth it.

I have never seen nor held a C6-01, but it seemed to me to be the most ‘mobile phone like’ of the four; smaller in size, a nice chunk of plastic and metal, all touch but with call answer/end buttons and home button. The C7, dubbed “the thin one” at Nokia World, was indeed thinner than its bigger brothers, the E7 and the N8, and it was lightweight too, like a slimmed-down C6-01, if you like.

 

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But Symbian was the target for many reviewers when it came time to switch from praise to criticism. “Sure the hardware of the E7 is just sublime, but switch the thing on and it all goes pear-shaped” was the general gist of most reviews. Was that fair? Well, it does depend on when you bought your E7.

I had seen the Nokia World announcement in September, and I was almost drooling over the E7’s hardware. Coming from the Nokia N900, I was all about that keyboard. Unfortunately for me, despite having the money ready to throw at Nokia for a fresh E7, the thing wasn’t even available for months and months later, thanks to the classic tried-and-tested Nokia “announce-then-ship-six-months-later” irritating way of doing things. Except that instead of consumers being able to actually drool non-stop for six whole months, they can only really, literally drool for about six whole minutes, and so the passionate lusting for the aluminium qwerty slab of Symbian magicalness had tempered down to more of a shrug and a high-pitched “meh”. But my “meh” wasn’t that high-pitched, and I did take the plunge in the summer of 2011, casting my N900 into the depths and darkness of a drawer, and firing up my new shiny silver E7 with all the electrified elation of a boy on Christmas Day in 1984 as he unwraps his Atari 2600 game system.

But my excitement was swiftly squished even more when I realised very quickly that my particular E7 was shipped with the standard launch-version Symbian S^3 software, and not the new-fangled “Symbian Anna” software update that promised all kinds of treats, such as a better web browser and calendar, prettier icons and more freedom on the homescreen to arrange the shortcuts and widgets the way I wanted. It had been promised! I had been told by Nokia themselves that I would get it. The CEO Stephen Elop had spoken into the camera at the N9’s launch and had told me directly that all Nokia S^3 phones purchased over the summer would ship with Symbian Anna. But, despite this clear statement, mine was not. Boo hoo. And you know something else? Symbian Anna wasn’t actually released for my particular E7 product code until the end of October. Nokia was never very good at rolling out updates, and I was actually still waiting for Symbian Anna while some people were bragging on the web about having the subsequent update, Symbian Belle!

 

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But enough of my grumpy look back through history. What was it about the E7 that kept me using it through all the anticipation of receiving Symbian Anna? Well, to be honest it was the hardware, sure, but it was also Symbian itself. I had hit up the Nokia Support Discussions boards and read all of the online screaming about Anna not being released after people had already bought their S^3 phones months before, and I honestly thought, what’s all the fuss? Sure it would have been nice to have had Anna on my first day, or just be made to wait just a couple of weeks instead of nearly three months, but I was loving my E7. Loving it.

The qwerty keyboard was, as far as I was concerned, to die for. I had challenged my iPhone-toting friends to typing speed contests, and even won a couple of them. I didn’t mind the aging look of Symbian either; I had always loved the Nokia interface of all my Nokia phones, from the 3310, to the 6136, to my E75, to the Maemo-running N900. The E7 and Symbian felt like home. Familiar, cosy, reliable. My E7 worked almost perfectly, with a few hiccups here and there, as I expected, seeing as it was a smartphone, and didn’t all smartphones have hiccups now and again? I didn’t love the camera though. It produced pretty good landscape-type shots, but indoors it was just okay, and as for close-ups… well, I would have to boot my N900 up for those. Yes, that EDoF camera was pretty bloody useless when it came to close-ups. I would often ponder as to what went on during the design meetings for this specific aspect of the E7’s component choices. I mean, the auto-focus camera on the E72 seemed small enough, so why did they think it would be ok to promote this phone, the E7, as a business device, but actually hinder its enterprise capabilities by putting in an EDoF camera that would be totally useless for snapping receipts or statements or other business-y type things business people need to do all the time. I have never taken a photo of a receiptt or a bank statement, but I do like to photograph flowers and my cat up close and personal, so those hobbies were out with the E7.

But even that didn’t deter me (much) and I continued to love it, text and email and text some more; the keyboard was just that fun to use. And the generous four inch screen was indeed, very inviting, and I would often leave the screen up and the keyboard exposed in case a text, or Whatsapp reply came beeping in, allowing a quick reply, all ready to be typed away at joyous speeds and comfort.

Other aspects of the E7 that I just loved were also aspects of Symbian itself. Yes, Anna finally arrived, and with that, those wonderfully cute, colourful and pleasant ‘squircle’ icons. I was all for them. More homescreen widgets, more flexibility, snappier responses to my input – it was all looking good.

Unfortunately for my E7, this love affair only lasted another month or so. The lure of the MeeGo-powered dream-phone was just too much, and on New Year’s Eve, after reading my umpteenth review and after watching my umpteenth video hands-on, and after my umpteenth mixed drink, I clicked “Buy”, and a cyan Nokia N9 was on its way to me.

Fast-forward on from that New Year’s Eve 2011, and I used the N9 for all of 2012 and one month of 2013, before I happily returned to Symbian Belle Refresh with the incredible Nokia 808 PureView in February 2013. I used that beauty for most of 2013, before it just couldn’t thrive any longer with its life-support system at Nokia cut down to just the vitals. Seemingly and all of a sudden, photos wouldn’t upload to Twitter and Facebook and Flickr, and other previously-working bits of the software overall became finicky and laggy and I had pretty much had enough by the beginning of December 2013. I then stuck it out with my first Windows Phone 8.0 purchase, the very fine and wonderful Nokia Lumia 920, before quickly ditching it for the second 41MP imaging monster, the Lumia 1020, which is what I use as my daily device to this day. And there isn’t anything available that seems as awesome as that, even in late 2014. Sure there’s the Lumia 930, but my camera on the 1020 is better, and I enjoy ‘Glance’ screen all the time. Then there’s the even newer Lumia 830 which does have Glance but its 10MP camera certainly is no replacement for my 1020’s camera. And as of now, October 2014, there is no 1020 successor on the horizon. I’m looking forward to finding this post in future months, and reading it on my 1020 successor and laughing really loudly at myself.

Anyway, now that that I’ve got that all out of the way, I’m going to tell you what happened when I tried to use my beloved E7 for a weekend recently, a week or so ago. Could it hold up in the crazy hashtag world of 2014? A world it wasn’t designed for? A world that turns its stuck up and snobby back on Symbian? I was eager to find out.

My E7 was duly factory reset and updated to the latest tweaks and quirks that Nokia Suite could supply. Which wasn’t much, because I think Nokia coughed up the last of their Symbian updates a while ago, and even that was a paltry Twitter API fix. Bleh. Rubbish. The all-powerful, all-knowing eye of Microsoft had ensured that all of the Symbian peeps had been fired, the Symbian development rooms had been sealed and bricked up forever, and anyone seen wearing a “Symbian Loves Me and I Love Symbian” t-shirt was smartly marched up to the roof wearing a pillowcase on their head, thoroughly beaten up by thugs wearing Bill Gates masks a la ‘Point Break’, and then thrown off the top of Nokia House into the snow and ice below.

OK, none of that is true. But Symbian, in 2014, does seem dead. And I’m not talking about how many Symbian phones are on sale in your local mobile phone shop kind of dead (which is very, very dead), but the kind of dead that makes it hard for even a geek like me to bring my E7 back to life in a way that allows the device to be properly used on a daily basis. So not quite completely dead, but really bloody ill.

You must be wondering why I had problems, especially if you are currently using an S^3 phone without issue. Well, after I had updated the base OS (Nokia Belle Refresh) to whatever updates it could find when connected to Nokia Suite, I then went about sorting out what I like to call my “Big Three”. That’s email, Facebook, and Twitter. First, email. Since Symbian Belle fully supports Exchange Active Sync still (which did surprise me) all I had to do was enter my Outlook.com email address and ask the E7 during setup to retrieve Calendar and Contacts. It took quite a few minutes for the syncing to complete, even over wifi, but when it was all done I breathed a sigh of relief (and shock!) to see my latest calendar entries all there, all of my contacts – with photos – all there, and my email synced back to around a week ago. That was huge. My Nokia N9 can’t do that, and my older E72 (more on that in part 2!) could, despite it taking a lot longer to sync, and then continue to inform me there had been syncing errors (when in fact, all was well).

As for Facebook, I was back to relying on decent third-party apps, as the built-in Nokia Social was still the awful, slow dinosaur it always was. Seriously, how did those Nokia boffins back then think it was totally ok to have to wait that long for the app to load, and that long for the latest update to appear on the screen. Those guys must really be the most patient guys on the planet. Ah, those Finns. Love ‘em. So for Facebook I opted for my old favourite, Facebook Qt, which wasn’t that slow and gave me all the options and features of a first-class official app, even though it was somewhat archaic and fiddly, as the links are still very small, and hitting them with a pudgy index finger is a bit hit or miss. Literally!

Ferreting around for my Twitter feed was much easier and way nicer; luckily, Tweetian is still knocking around in various places for download (I went to AllAboutSymbian to find it), and it is still my most favourite Twitter app of all time. I really wish the developer could find it in his heart to port it over to Windows Phone, but I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon. Plus Windows Phone already has a plethora of very decent Twitter apps such as Tweetium and Mehdoh. Even the stock Twiiter app ain’t all that bad really.

With the Big 3 all set up, I went about finding what else I would have usually had on my E7, and as luck would have it, despite the removal men arriving and finishing up their tea, all ready to close the Nokia Store down, it still has all my information in it from years ago. Which means what? Well it means I can just go through the long list in “My Downloads” and pick and choose the apps I want to reinstall. Of course this is Symbian, so preparing a four-course dinner at the same time is a perfect undertaking when reinstalling apps on an E7: each app takes a century to download, prepare to install, install, finalise, and by the time you’ve prepared an entire meal for eight guests, the first app is done. Seriously though, I did say the Finns were patient people, didn’t I?

So the E7 was all loaded up with apps, emails, calendar entries and contacts. It was raring to go, so I charged it up and headed out into the New York weekend.

 

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And unfortunately, that is when I hit some dead-ends. You see, despite my efforts in making sure I’d ticked all the right boxes and done everything right with updates and the latest apps and even restarting the phone a few times during the app installation process to ‘keep the system happy’, Symbian just is not stable enough (in my E7 anyway) to be relied upon fully. It wasn’t long before I was checking my Tweetian feed, wanting to switch out and check my email, when the screen froze up. It was like time had stopped, I could do nothing with the phone. No hardware button could release it from its syntax error prison, and the only thing I could do was hold the power button down for about ten seconds to do a full soft-reset. The phone went off, and came back on again, booting up all the little areas that it needs to be ready again. No worries! Except that it happened again later on in the evening, and I had to reset it. Again.

There seems to be this fact that Symbian just doesn’t like to be used. I know that sounds daft, but Symbian is happiest when the screen is in standby and you’re leaving it alone. As soon as you want to start actually doing things, you know, smartphone-type things, it gets angry and moody and stomps its feet, and pouts and refuses to play. Not that any of this was a massive shock to me; it was like the good old days of telling my annoyed wife, “No, darling, there isn’t anything exactly wrong with your N8, you’ve just been using it for too long without a reboot, which is why it’s frozen like this.” People should not have to put up with $400 phones freezing up, restarting by themselves, or being generally grumpy with their owners.

My E7 is a beauty, but the software side of it seems like it should have had a complete refresh. No, not a Belle Refresh, a complete reworking, the same kind of start-from-scratch again that Microsoft did with Windows Mobile when they released Windows Phone 7. And after using my E72 and going back proper old school on S60 software, I can see how so much of that rusty old software was given a fresh coat of paint in S^3, (and then another coat with Anna, and one more with Belle), but the walls underneath the paint were full of rot. Painting over them doesn’t hide the fact that they are not fit for purpose.

I’m being a bit unfair. This is late-2014 and this operating system is from all the way back from… well am I? This operating system isn’t that old, and I will put my hand on my heart and say I really expected things to be different with my E7; I was expecting the odd hiccup, not an almost-unusable device. It’s fine for email, texts and possibly Tweetian (if you make sure you never try and close it, just hide it) but underneath the hood it’s probably a bit of a mess. And it doesn’t help that my older, sealed battery is showing signs of giving up the ghost too: I only managed about six hours with it before I hit 10%. I remember getting much more than that in 2011.

 

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I’m sure there are thousands of people still happily using their various S^3 devices, with Symbian doing a grand old job of dealing with whatever the users are asking it to do. I’m no coder, and there are probably plenty of people on some form of wacky custom firmware that is doing a way better job of anything the Nokia boffins churned out, and good luck to them, I say. But now, in late-2014, I am having to consign my E7 back to occasional fiddling, as experience dictates that it just ain’t up to it anymore.

My phone collection right now has the Lumia 1020 sitting at the top of the pile, and I use it as my daily device. Other phones have their uses, but it is my 1020 that does the grunt work of my day-to-day usage, and I love it. I find it a bit funny that I actually used to think of my E7 as this reliable daily device, and it honestly didn’t have the seize-up issues I had recently dealt with when I was using it back in 2011.

But something happened along the way, and Symbian now can’t seem to survive on its own without the backing and support of Nokia who were always ready to throw it an update now and again, or to tweak this or polish that. Those days are definitely over.

Microsoft’s acquisition of Nokia has meant that Symbian phones have been essentially left to wither and die, and despite some of our best efforts to keep them current and useful, it seems that they are certainly doomed to spend eternity silently hibernating, nestled in between the warm and fuzzy embrace of our well-worn socks.

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