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Improved user interface key issue for Symbian

The Symbian Foundation is looking to fully embrace touchscreen smartphones

By Mikael Ricknäs, IDG News Service
October 28, 2009 12:31 PM ET

IDG News Service - Unlike the iPhone and products based on Google's Android OS, Symbian's user interface hasn't been developed for smartphones with touchscreens. But that is about to change, said Lee Williams, executive director at the Symbian Foundation, who along with his colleagues gathered at the Symbian Exchange & Exposition on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Symbian Foundation was formed after Nokia acquired the Symbian company in last June. The foundation is working on a number of upcoming versions of the OS, and also turning the source code into open source. The latter process is expected to be done by the middle of 2010.

The main problem with the user interface on current Symbian devices is the number of times users have to click to find an application or settings. That comes from the fact that the user interface really isn't built for phones with touchscreens, but for devices that are controlled using physical keys. So the user interface needs to evolve to support touchscreen devices and that's taking time, according to Williams.

The big change will come in Symbian Version 4, which is getting a user interface based on the Qt UI framework that has been built from the ground up for touchscreen devices.

The interface in version 4, which is still being developed, will come with transparency effects integrated all over the system, according to Williams. Another improvement is that Web-based widgets will have the same performance as application that run directly on the phone, he said.

There is also a fully declarative user interface, which means that the developer only has to write an application once and it will work irrespective of the display size or the resolution, Williams said.

But the evolution of the user interface will start in Symbian Version 2, which will be the first full release of the OS under the Symbian Foundation. For example, the number of inputs necessary to get to settings or controls has been reduced. Also, when searching for something in a list only the letters that are relevant for what you can type next alphabetically will be displayed, instead of the whole QWERTY keyboard, according to Williams.

The first phones based on Symbian Version 2 are expected to become available in the first quarter of next year, and code for Symbian Version 4 will be available to product manufacturers in the next four months, according to Williams. It then will take six to nine months for manufacturers to release products with the updated OS, but some phones may come sooner than that depending on how aggressive the manufacturers are, he said.

That means products should become available toward the end of 2010, but could show up during the third quarter of next year.

Meanwhile, Apple and Google will, of course, be working to improve the user interfaces on next-generation iPhones and Android-based devices.

But if Symbian's user interface trails the competition on usability, the core of the operating system is second to none, according to Williams. The core is a microkernel, which was open-sourced last week, and is portable across different architectures, including application processors and chipsets, he said.

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