Symbian developers are well placed to benefit from smartphone boom

Smartphone sales are soaring, and Symbian OS has 72% of the market.

What is it?

Symbian OS is a proprietary operating system for mobile devices.

Smartphones remain a niche product in the mobile market, but the opportunities for growth are massive. Last year 64 million were shipped worldwide, contributing to overall mobile phone sales of 986 million. Mobile analyst Canalys said smartphone sales were up 63% on 2005.

Symbian is favoured by phone maker Nokia, in particular, and the operating system has about 72% of the market, according to Canalys. However, it is under pressure from growing use of Linux (about 20% of the market), and Microsoft's Windows Mobile.

The roads to developing applications for Symbian lead from mainstream programming skills. The dominant language is C++, followed by Java, with room for Visual Basic, C#, Ruby, Python and others.

Where did it originate?

Symbian originated with Psion's Epoc operating system. Symbian Ltd was formed as a partnership between Psion, Ericsson, Nokia and Motorola in 1998.

Psion sold out in 2004, and the major shareholders are now Nokia with 48%, Ericsson, Panasonic, Samsung and Siemens. The company's headquarters remain in London and Cambridge, with offices in the US and Asia.

What's it for?

Symbian OS is designed to make the most of the limited capacity - screen, keyboard, memory and storage - of handheld mobile devices. It has its own libraries, user interface frameworks and toolkits. The dominant integrated development environments (IDEs) are the Eclipse-based Carbide family from Nokia, but there are also plug-ins for Visual Studio, and the Sun Java Wireless Toolkit is used for Java ME.

There is a free version of the Nokia IDE, Carbide.c++ Express, for "non-commercial" development, which would be a good introduction to the subset of C++, which developers accustomed to C++ on less limited platforms will have to get to grips with.

Where is it used?

Networks supporting Symbian include Vodafone, Orange, NTT DoCoMo, T-Mobile, Telefonica Móviles España and Telecom Italia.

What systems does it run on?

C++ is supplier-independent, and is supported by both the Eclipse development platform and by Microsoft's C++/CLI.

What makes it special?

There is huge potential for application development if users wake up to it. At least 7,478 third-party Symbian applications are commercially available, but only half of Symbian smartphone users have downloaded and installed one or more of them, according to consultancy firm Yankee Group.

How difficult is it to master?

Developers with a background in Eclipse will be familiar with the Carbide.c++ approach, although the tool is structured to guide any developer though the steps required to write and deploy Symbian applications. Symbian also publishes downloadable reference applications and utilities written by its own engineers in C++ or Java, with full source code.

What's coming up?

The next version of C++, known as C++0x, is under development.

More on Symbian OS >>

Five years of Symbian versus Microsoft >>

Symbian: the 'European' operating system >>

Mobile apps will boost productivity >>

Windows Mobile tries to capture market with apps >>

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