10 never before revealed secrets about Symbian OS

If you’re an old school Symbian fanboy you might like to know a few secrets that can only be revealed now that both the Symbian companies and the Symbian open source foundation have closed down.

  1. You may know that early versions of Symbian OS were called EPOC – with ER3 (EPOC Release 3) and ER5 being used in the Psion Series 5 and the Psion Revo and 5MX respectively. Symbian 6.0 was used in the Nokia 9210 and it’s variants. After this, each release version was named after a ‘wind’, including Tornado (6.1), Hurricane (7.0), Jetstream (8.0), Typhoon (7.0s), Sirocco and Zephyr (planned for whatever came after 8). This later changed to girls’ names starting with Symbian Anna, after briefly using the phonetic alphabet names with the intention of spelling out the word ‘SYMBIAN’. After Sirocco, releases were called Yankee, Mike, Bravo and India. They switched to Anna as Alpha seemed an inappropriate name for mature software.
  2. Similarly, licensees (the OEMs) were named after rivers – Nokia was Nile, Motorola was Hudson, Philips was Liffey, Sony – Euphrates (before their merger with Ericsson), Fujitsu – Tigris, Panasonic – Isis (after the old name for the Thames). It might have gotten confusing if Amazon.com had been making smartphones back then! Curiously, Palm was in discussions to become a licensee for a short while, and had the codename Puck which was not a river. It is believed that Nokia gave them this codename rather than Symbian as they were leading the discussions. Codenames were important as many people at Symbian would know details of all licensees product roadmaps and it was important not to let licensees learn about each others’ plans.
  3. Phone codenames were most often girls’ names, a policy adopted from Ericsson, but depended on the licensee as well. Notable releases included the 9210 (Linda), the R380 (Roxette), the P800 (Paula) and its prototype precursor the Pamela, 7650 (Calypso), 6600 (Calimero), 3650 (Cameron). The first phone from Fujitsu for the NTT DoCoMo network was codenamed Sakura. The N-Gage’s codename was Starship, and the Nokia 6630, was codenamed Charlie and its sister phone the 6680 was named Milla – after Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles!
  4. Symbian at one time had a large internal interaction design team led by Scott Jenson, formerly of Apple and currently at Google, developing blue sky user interface concepts such as a universal messaging inbox (sms, fax, email, voicemail and IM all in one interface not unlike iMessages today). Their output fed into the design of the ‘DFRDs’, the device formfactor reference designs for the major form factors – Quartz for PDA type devices, Pearl for candybar one handed phones, Crystal for keyboard devices like the Nokia Communicators. When the licensees decided that they would take over the creation of the user interface and application layer, with Quartz becoming UIQ, Crystal becoming Series 80 and Pearl being dropped in favour of Series 60, a secret project called Nightingale was prepared within Symbian which resulted in dozens of staff being made redundant including the design team. This more than anything else led to Symbian’s failure years later in the face of iPhone, because it was the reason that Symbian had so much fragmentation between devices, so little support for third party applications, and such bad user interfaces designed by the licensees instead of by the experts in Symbian’s own design team.
  5. Typhoon (7.0s) was not originally in the roadmap. Symbian was still evolving in those early versions and featured large API breaks between major releases. Nokia had just launched a wave of devices on version 6.1 starting with the 7650, and wanted apps compatibility between those phones and the next wave of phones that would start with the 6600. But they also needed many of the new features added in version 7, not least 3G support. So Symbian agreed with Nokia to develop a whole additional release of Symbian that would build on version 7 but include backwards compatibility with 6.1 for everything Nokia’s Series 60 platform depended on. This release was called 7.0s to account for the fact that a 7.1 or 7.2 would be covered by existing license terms and conditions. Officially the ‘s’ didn’t mean anything but in practice it was taken to mean ‘special’. Since Symbian’s own developers were already fully booked on the existing roadmap, Nokia paid for Symbian to hire some 100 extra staff, mostly shipped over from Indian subcontractors, to deliver the extra release. This release would go on to power the majority of Symbian phones sold until the N-series range of devices was launched (running on the yankee and mike releases).
  6. Although Symbian was built to run only on the ARM platform (but did in fact also run on Intel x86 platform with some limitations and only for development purposes), when Motorola first signed up as a licensee and investor in Symbian, one of their conditions was that Symbian be ported to run on their M-Core CPU architecture. Fortunately after a while this requirement went away as Motorola adopted ARM themselves.
  7. Symbian’s product roadmap was decided by a technical committee (TechCom) consisting of Symbian’s product managers and representatives from the licensees. The roadmap was important because it determined how Symbian’s money, provided by the licensees, was to be invested in feature development, the idea being that Symbian provided all the common parts every licensee needed but left gaps for them to fill so they could differentiate their products. Nokia’s representative blocked inclusion of a camera API until version 7 claiming no one needed a camera phone even though they were already popular in Japan. In fact, Nokia was getting ready to launch the 7650, their first camera phone, using version 6.1, and were worried the P800 or another phone would launch before them. Once it launched, the official camera API from version 7 was quickly backported, and a downloadable ‘ECam.sis’ file made available for the 7650 so that apps that needed the camera would work, while the next phone, the 3650, came with the ECam API built in.
  8. Around 2009, China Mobile were interested in creating a branched version of Android that ran on a Symbian OS kernel instead of Linux, for greater power efficiency among other things. Unfortunately Symbian Foundation CEO Lee Williams failed to turn up to the meeting, being too tired and emotional to attend, and the Chinese left unimpressed and decided not to take the discussion any further.
  9. After Nightingale, Nokia sponsored the creation of a startup, called Mobile Innovation, to work on the Crystal user interface for Communicator devices, which resulted in the development of the Series 90 touch screen interface (originally planned for three devices, the Cx (Communicator next gen), the Mx (Media next gen) and the Orca, a CDMA variant for North America) and the Series 80 version 2 interface used on the Communicator 9500. The later E90 device used the S60 interface instead, while the S90 team ramped down. This UI was codenamed ‘Hildon’ after the brand on the bottled water in the conference room where it was decided. They rented office space from Symbian’s progenitor Psion, and competed for skilled developers with Symbian itself as they were so nearby and led by management that had also worked for Symbian. Ostensibly Mobile Innovation was to support other customers in building apps on Symbian too, but in practice had only one other, Macromedia, for whom they built the Flash port for Symbian OS before being acquired by Macromedia shortly before Macromedia was itself acquired by Adobe.
  10. Apple’s iSync software for synchronising calendar and contacts from Mac to phone included Symbian support developed by a company called Intuwave, itself a startup spun out of Symbian by former members of Psion’s PC connectivity software team and at the time, the maintainers of the PsiWin/Symbian Connect PC Suite. In the first release, Apple insisted that on first synchronisation, the phone’s memory should be wiped and the contents of the Mac’s PIM data copied over to the phone because Apple felt that the Mac would be a Mac owner’s hub for all their data and the single source of truth. They launched despite protests from the developers that the first time sync should be a merge of data on the device too, which had been implemented but was turned off. When hundreds of customers started complaining to Apple about having their contacts wiped, which were unrecoverable if they hadn’t been backed up, a minor update was quickly released which enabled the data merge instead.

For more insights into the history of Symbian, you might enjoy this book