What’s behind the user experience trends at the Symbian Smartphone show?

The Symbian Smartphone show in London this week has seen several major announcements. Firstly, Nokia confirmed a major new version of its Series 60 platform would ship next year, incorporating support for touchscreen user interfaces, a wide range of sensory inputs such as movement and acceleration, the ability to run Flash videos within the web browser and a new toolkit enabling handset manufacturers to customise the top graphical layer of the interface.

These represent significant enhancements to the user interaction possibilities offered by Series 60. The addition of touchscreen support, which was first mentioned when Nokia launched its services strategy a few weeks ago, is particularly important.

Traditionally Nokia has insisted it saw no place for touchscreen interfaces in devices designed for single-handed usage. Its interaction model has always been built around hardware keys and software menus and icons. It appears the company is now moving this interface strategy forward, no doubt having learnt some lessons from the iPhone’s technique of removing unnecessary interface layers between the user and the content itself.

As media consumption on mobile devices increases, so to will the range of input methods built into each device. Correspondingly, we believe the intrusiveness of the interface layer will need to be reduced, allowing the content or the user’s current activities to become the focus of the UI. Rather than showing a row of icons alongside a picture, the user will simply touch the image to manipulate it. Conference calls will be initiated by tapping on a gallery of faces rather than activated using a series of arcane menu commands. This kind of interaction is being pioneered by the iPhone – Nokia will bring it to the mainstream with Series 60.

The addition of support for extra sensors is also important. The first applications of this are likely to be driven by gaming, but it is part of a wider trend of building devices which are more aware of their surroundings and better able to adjust their context accordingly. Interestingly Nokia will also build in support for haptic feedback through its touchscreen, so that when a user clicks on an icon, the device transmits a short vibration to confirm the action. Immersion Corporation is the major patent holder in this area and has already signed licensing agreements with many of the major manufacturers. The addition of this technology to Series 60 is likely a major win for them.

The timing of the interface toolkit announcement coincides with several Series 60 product launches from Samsung. The South Korean manufacturer has been a Series 60 licensee for some time but has been slow to rollout products commercially. Nokia’s release of tools to allow handset partners greater freedom over the way they customise the top layer of the interface is part of a wider strategy to encourage an expansion of the Series 60 eco-system to include additional partners.

The competition in this area is likely to increase as a result of another major announcement at the event. UIQ Technologies, which produces a competing interface and applications layer, said that Motorola was buying into the company, effectively splitting ownership of UIQ jointly between the US manufacturer and existing owners Sony Ericsson.

This is a clear signal from Motorola that it intends to expand the usage of UIQ in its premium products, building on the RIZR Z8 device announced earlier this year. Motorola has realised it needs to rapidly develop a competitive high end portfolio in the wake of Nokia’s rapid expansion of the N-Series and a resurgent handset line-up at Samsung.

It now seems that UIQ’s software will play a significant roll in this process. The platform is already designed to support both touch- and key-driven input within the same device, as well as providing access to a growing eco-system of third party software applications.

We believe it is a sensible move for Motorola, albeit one of a very limited number of realistic platform choices available to it. However, it also highlights the chaotic approach to strategic planning which continues to affect the company.

UIQ was originally Ericsson’s Ronneby-based research team. It was then acquired by Symbian while Motorola was still a shareholder in that venture. UIQ was later spun out as an independent subsidary, while Motorola subsequently sold its stake in Symbian and declared its intention to build its future devices on Linux and Java. This allowed Nokia to effectively take control of the Symbian venture. Sony Ericsson went on to buy back UIQ to give it a competitor to Series 60 and with a view to running it as an independent company. Now Motorola has come full circle, re-introducing Symbian-based products into its roadmap and re-investing in UIQ.

You can be forgiven if you lost track of all those changes of ownership. The bottom line, however, is that when the game of musical chairs stops, Motorola will find it has lost tens of millions of dollars investing in Symbian, missed an opportunity to acquire UIQ much earlier or keep it within the Symbian venture and is now paying out again to re-acquire a strategic foothold in UIQ. In addition, it finds itself about a year behind the curve in smartphone development. It’s no wonder the company’s financial performance has been suffering (we’ll find out the true extent of this suffering next week, when Motorola publishes its Q3 results – subscribers to our premium PMN Handset Industry Insight service will have full coverage).

The third announcement we’d like to highlight is Symbian’s own strategy to focus on building high performance, 3D graphics capabilities into the platform and adding true broadband capabilities. This is very much in-line with the vision of Symbian’s largest shareholder – Nokia – which has already articulated its future strategy of turning mobile phones into highly capable mobile computing devices.

It’s clear that Nokia sees Symbian as the foundation for this effort. The N95, arguably Nokia’s most successful Symbian-based handset, is marketed under the tag-line “what computers have become.” In conjunction with Nokia’s internal repositioning as an ‘internet’ company, we can see that Symbian-based devices will be at the heart of this plan to make really rich services available in the mobile environment.

Finally, here’s a link to some Phonescoop images of the Giorgio Armani handset manufactured by Samsung. We mentioned this last weke as an aside in our article on ‘5 handsets changing the industry landscape’ and have had several requests for more information.

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