Is that a PC in your pocket?
Mobiles a model for future desktops?
Analysis Mobile phones are not, and never will be, the open and truly flexible platform that desktop computers provide.
Mobile phone manufacturers are constantly telling us that the latest mobile phone can do anything a PC can, but some users are finding that their new handsets are acting in very un-PC ways; refusing to run software a few years old and not letting them develop their own.
While it might seem that phones are becoming less like PCs, it's more likely they are leading the way that PCs are heading.
An application running on a desktop PC can generally, once installed, do anything: it has access to all resources and can do whatever it likes. This criticism has long been aimed at Microsoft Windows, but on any desktop system the owner is the ultimate arbitrator of what should be allowed and the application developer can create applications to do anything.
Unfortunately, the owners have proven their inability to judge the character of applications by the epidemic of malware, viruses and trojans which plague the internet.
The mobile phone companies are terrified that the same problems are going to migrate to their networks, and are prepared to take serious steps to avoid it happening, but if the owner of the phone can't be trusted then who should be?
Attempts to secure Microsoft Windows have constantly been hampered by the need to remain compatible with applications written 20 years ago: Microsoft knows that if it released a version which wasn't backwards compatible their customers would be in uproar, but no such legacy affects mobile phones, at least not yet.
So, at the risk of alienating a few users, Symbian; maker of the most popular smart phone operating system, has released its version 9 OS, which incorporates much greater security at the cost of backwards compatibility. The changes to Symbian 9 are significant in terms of new features, but most applications should only need to be recompiled and tweaked to work, unfortunately (for customers) Series 60 and UIQ (the graphical layers which run on top of Symbian) decided to take the opportunity to update their versions to 3, and make more radical changes that mean applications have to be ported to work properly.
Moving an application onto version 3 of UIQ or Series 60 is estimated (by Garry Partington, CTO of EMCC Software) to take about 20 per cent of the original development effort, and if you want to avoid lots of warnings being displayed to the user then you'll have to get it Symbian Signed too, which will cost you a few hundred quid and take some time.
Symbian has been working hard over the last few years to make sure software developers know all about the changes, and both Series 60 and UIQ provide comprehensive guides to getting applications working, but no one seems to be taking any time to inform users. With these devices now on the streets, some users are being caught out by incompatibilities they didn't expect.
The Nokia N80 is typical; it runs Symbian 9 with Series 60 version 3, and offers enough improvements over the N70 to encourage people to upgrade, but when they do they are finding that even quite expensive applications aren't being supported.
The hugely popular TomTom MOBILE GPS system connects to a Series 60 handset which then displays a map and directions, but not on a Series 60 version 3 handset! According to TomTom, it's up to the customer to check their website for compatibility, and they won't say when, or if, they're going to support version 3 of Series 60.
Last time I bought a PC I don't remember checking with the producers of all my software to see if it would still work, but when you're buying a new phone you might want to do just that.
A quick check of SymbianGear reveals that the N70 (Series 60 version 2) has over 300 commercial applications available for it, while the N80 has only 75. In freeware, where resources for porting and signing are more restricted, the situation is worse with only 10 programs for the N80 while the N70 has over 210!
Symbian assures us that this is the last time it'll be doing this, and in future backwards compatibility will be maintained. There is good reason to believe this, but it may be too little too late unless consumers can be educated as to how compatible their handsets actually are.
It's not just end-users who are being caught out expecting their phones to work like PCs - developers can face unexpected difficulties too. The SavaJe platform is a mobile phone OS completely based around Java, and the company has commissioned the Jasper handset to enable Java developers to create powerful applications by taking advantage of APIs which haven't yet been formally standardised. Developers can buy Jasper handsets, and SavaJe hopes that soon the platform will be licensed to mainstream manufacturers.
The problem with creating applications for the Jasper is that those applications can't, legally, be distributed without breaking the Java license; until those APIs are formally approved by the JCP (the Java Community Process). SavaJe says that having Jasper allows developers to experiment with pre-release versions and gain valuable experience, and it points out that right now there is no standard way of distributing those applications anyway, leaving the developer doubly damned.
Network operators have seen the mess that is the modern internet; awash with viruses, trojans and malware, and will do anything to prevent their networks going the same way, even if that means restricting what users can do.
At the same time, groups such as the Trusted Computing Initiative are looking to mobile phones as a model for the desktop systems of the future.
The question here is not what the limitations of a phone handset should be, but whose responsibility should it be to inform the end users of those limitations, because right now it seems that no one is interested in letting people know if their new handset will actually be able to do anything more than making phone calls. ®