My Mobile OS Is A Better Middleman Than Yours

I’ve been thinking about mobile OSes lately, mostly because I’m pretty tired of the mess that is S60 on top of Symbian on my Nokia E71. I’m tired of it taking 20 seconds for a new SMS to show up on the screen after I click the icon; I’m tired of the slow web browser; I’m tired of the lack of cool applications for it. So tired that while I haven’t figured out what my next handset will be, I’m pretty sure I’ll break with my long history of buying Nokia devices, and will look to another brand and another OS.

So with that background, I’ve been keeping an eye on what Symbian’s been up to, including its recent announcement that it had completed open-sourcing its code. That’s a big achievement, especially doing so four months ahead of schedule. But going open source in and of itself doesn’t solve any of the problems or threats facing Symbian at this point, and again, in and of itself won’t help take down the roadblocks to developers that have sprouted up in the OS over the last several years.

But what the move to open source does mean is that there’s an opportunity for the community to help rectify that (if they’re so inclined). A case in point is the Social Media Framework for the Symbian^4 release, proposed by a company called Sasken. Rafe over at All About Symbian has a great rundown of the SMF and some video about it. Basically, the SMF acts as a middleman between applications on a device and social networks. It interacts with social networking services on one side through service-specific plug-ins, then makes their information available to any application on through the use of generic, built-in APIs.

So, in practice, the SMF would have a plug-in for, say, Facebook, which would link it with, say a contacts API and image-sharing API in the SMF. The SMF server then becomes a single point of contact for applications, and the data it’s pulled in from the social networks are accessed by applications through a common interface. In layman’s terms, it’s sort of like your cable set-top box: instead of having to go out and get separate connections to CNN, ESPN, Disney Channel and so on, then connecting them to your TV, you just connect the box to the TV, and it then makes all the channels available.

That’s a great strategy for Symbian to take, and one which could let it build a strong advantage over some other platforms. Given Apple’s penchant for control, it’s very difficult to see it building such openness and interoperability into its platform; given Google’s myriad services, and its constant attempts to usurp other social networks, it’s hard to see such functionality making its way into Android. So a platform like Symbian (or Palm), that’s not attached to social-networking services via a corporate parent, can really seize this space and take real advantage of its ability to be the best middleman between social networks and devices, hopefully leading to the best integration for users, and the ability for developers to easily create the most compelling social applications.

“Ah, but what about Ovi?” I hear you asking. Nokia obviously gets the importance of integrating social services into handsets, even if the services it integrates aren’t necessarily the best ones. This middleman strategy I’ve highlighted would dictate that the platform provider doesn’t play favorites, and then hopefully the handset vendor would go along with it. If not, they’ve undermined it, and reincarnated the walled garden. Which, really, is more of the same, and not a way for success going forward.

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