back to article Symbian: Linux unfit for mobile phones

Symbian has told the world that as open source operating systems go, Linux is unfit for mobile phones. "There’s been a lot of misleading information over the years...about the fitness of Linux for the mobile space," Jerry Panagrossi, vp of Symbian's North American operations, told industry insiders this morning at the GigaOM: …


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  1. Drak

    Ha! Thanks for the FUD Mr. Panagrossi

    What a joke that Nokia would accuse mobile Linux of fragmentation of application portability. Thats been the model for all mobile hardware makers is to make apps proprietary and cut off the customer from using anything but their platform. Now that mobile Linux is coming out and knocking out all these barriers, Nokia has no choice but to spew out FUD over the mobile Linux platform (which Nokia uses by the way on their potent N810 line). If the mobile hardware makers had played it right from the beginning they would be a giant pool of Symbian software from which they all could profit together. Now that profit is going to be spread out among the masses, unlike the freetards that are stifling desktop Linux, I think that mobile Linux apps will be an area of profit for commercial software companys. Check out to see how well mobile Linux runs on a 400mhz Freerunner cellphone. There is also #openmoko a fairly active IRC channel on Freenode.

    screw you Nokia, youve been dishing out half-ass hardware and hyping crap apps for too many years, youre getting whats coming to you

  2. John Werner

    Horse and Buggy

    The automobile is not fit to replace the horse and carriage. Anyone who has worked with both can tell you that. You can't just let the automobile drive itself. A horse, well, when it's time to go home and you've had a few too many, he'll take you to your home without even thinking about it.

  3. Charles

    @John Werner

    They're working on self-driven cars. It's mostly a matter of trust now. Besides, can you trust the horse to know the way home in the middle of the night? Anyway, the big reason cars replaced horses was that it eliminated three onerous requirements: shovels, air freshener, and a daily supply of perishable feed.

  4. Martin Owens

    Linux on Mobiles

    the problem is _not_ fragmentation, it's lack of standardisation and lack of trust in the FOSS development process.

    Stop farting about and dedicate the resources needed to get IEEE, W3C, RFC and ISO standards which allow everyone to pick and choose which components they want for their phones.

    No they wouldn't dare do that, that would be too much like the right thing to do(tm)

  5. Graham Dawson Silver badge


    Methinks you missed the point, good sir.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    No shit Sherlock

    "When you drill down and look at realize it’s just a kernel."

    And this is a revelation?

  7. David Kelly
    Thumb Down


    Just took a look at Why on earth would anyone want to run X11 on their phone? The iPhone has a decent GPU and GUI rendering engine. To compete with that you need something equally good. IMO X11 doesn't cut it.

  8. William Bronze badge

    Jesus Wept.

    What is the obession with a phone that is a computer? A phone should do two things.

    1. Make calls

    2. Receive calls.

    No matter what software, what OS you stick on it, you are limited by the dimensions of the phone itself. Namely the distance between your ear and your mouth. Although the way some people go on you think it was the distance between your mouth and your arse, and with some of those people I think those body parts are easily interchangeable.

  9. Neil Hoskins


    My understanding is that most of the Linux-based phones in the Far East are some kind of locked, proprietary, feature phones.

    And that Forbes link is a bloody joke. If anything is irrelevant in the smartphone world it's the US market and any opinions Americans may have. It's a bit like post-war Britain, not realising that it's really lost its place in the world and people don't really care what we think. The relevant smartphone markets are Europe and the Far East. In the next few years, Africa and India will become more and more significant.

  10. Jims


    "the big reason cars replaced horses was that it eliminated three onerous requirements: shovels, air freshener, and a daily supply of perishable feed."

    and replaced them with ice-scrapers,fluffy dice and a daily supply of flammable liquid.

  11. Eponymous Cowherd
    Thumb Down

    Get some clue, Mr Panagrossi

    Linux only fit for workstations and servers, eh?

    We won't mention the routers, set-top boxes, PDAs, NASs, sat-navs, netbooks, portable media players, most of the top 50 supercomputers, the LHC.

    Obviously its going to be no bloody good for a poxy phone!

    That is not just FUD, that is pure, unadulterated, bullshit.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @ William

    I want a device that has a built in laser keyboard and built in projector, as well as all the usual 3G & GPS stuff and occasionally it's useful if it's a phone. Are you saying I can't have one because you don't want one ?

    That's a bit tight.

    Personally I would have thought anybody would prefer a pc over an ATM.

  13. yeah, right.


    There are several gadgets and tools (electronic or otherwise) that are useful to carry around. The calendar helps people remember what day it is and what they're supposed to be doing that day. Electronic ones can be made to even remind the user to look at the calendar at set times. The notebook helps some people keep track of information they need. The little black phone book helps people remember how to get in touch with certain people. The phone helps people keep in touch. The watch helps people know they are late. The music player or video watcher keeps people amused. The book reader as well. There are also advantages to being able to share information between these devices, such as the phone getting information about phone numbers from the phone book, or the calendar getting information from the watch to know when to ring that alarm. My actual requirements list for what I would like to be able to do "on the go" runs to two pages.

    I for one would prefer to just carry one well-designed device that does all (or most) of the above, rather than have to be festooned with devices and/or paper to do it all.

    That, sir, is why I would prefer a phone that is a computer. Technically they are anyway, why artificially limit them? If you are happy with a phone that simply (1) receives calls and (2) makes calls, with no other functionality, go for it. Good luck selling such a device, as that's not what I, and evidently many others, need or want.

  14. Charles Manning

    Ford: Toyota unfit to make cars

    There are more Linux embedded systems than any other Linux system.

    There are more ARM Linux systems than x86 Linux systems.

    Linux phones outnumber servers, and desktops combined, many times over.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    @Jesus Wept.

    "A phone should do two things.

    1. Make calls

    2. Receive calls."

    Bang on!

    And funny enough, that's what makes Nokia so popular. iPhones, Androids and the like are all nice and fine but the biggest selling phones in the world basically do these two basic requirements and are cheap and reliable (okay, not involving Symbian then;)). Nokia's biggest business is in this area.

    That said, Linux is not really an ideal embedded system for a phone. As said Linux itself is just a kernel and that is the one stable part of the system. The layers upon layers of drivers and supporting software, each involving multiple parties to support and develop, makes it a bit of a nightmare. It's not as if Nokia haven't investigated this either having released Linux handsets, and despite Symbian having its problems, they'd rather go with Symbian in the end than Linux.

    Linux is great, but like with the desktop argument, it's best suited to servers and the odd geek's bedroom.

  16. Thom Brown


    So why does he criticize Linux but does not mention Microsoft Windows Mobile or Apple OSX on the iPhone, both of which are already present in the marketplace? As Drak said, this is just industry FUD to make their own product more appealing. That's the only reason any company criticizes a rival product, because it's a threat.

  17. Anonymous Coward

    totaly wrong

    Speaking as embedded developer who works with a range of operating systems, there is a lot that is totally wrong about this press release.

    Linux, as the man says, is in many ways just a kernel. When your working with embedded devices, you often find yourself supporting chip sets that don't have an acceptable implementation on potentially any OS. You therefore spend a lot of time writing drivers for them.

    I read linux or ECOS code all the time as a basis of driver adaptions either for one to the other, or to a proprietary platform.

    Vendors, of board platforms, chips, or distributions will provide the kind of support you would expect from a proprietary vendor. The transparency of being able to read the kernel code is indispensable.

    In terms of supported applications, the linux user land is comparable with other sets of apps. It is not necessary to use X11 at all, indeed I think it is crazy to do so in an embedded device. Use the framebuffer (direct) or similar.

    A developer trying to put a mobile platform wants a customizable environment for their firmware teams, and a familiar environment for their software teams (writing things like the GUI). I haven't used it, but I'm sure symbian provides these things. However the criticisms leveled at linux, which has a great many failings, are not valid.

    btw, "linux has made strides... on the desktop", what? I think he is talking about kernel independent software like KDE, or package managers... which still suck.

  18. Pete Silver badge

    probably wrong

    Linux is a fine operating system - it just suffers from egregious user interfaces. So long as the phone operators can hide the inner workings from the populace, things should be fine (Oh, and if they can get the latency down to acceptable levels, that would be nice, too).

    However, once you have to start paging through obscure menus, full of utilities with cute but unhelpful names - all of which are minor variants of CD-burners or image viewers - then things go wrong very fast.

  19. Anonymous Coward

    Symbian is easier for Nokia

    But basically this guy is just too far from the "head quarters" to speak about any big pictures within Nokia.

    Linux is (just) a kernel, as Gates so eagerly pointed out in India some years ago.

    The damned thing is that a kernel is needed in any computer like device.

    Or, came to think about it, perhaps the problems with Vista are caused bye the lack of a kernel.

    Open sourcing Symbian, Nokia does a "Sun Solaris". Might work, or not, but it would be stupid to think that Nokia is unavare of both possibilities.

  20. Pierre

    That guy is the new FAIL

    Either I don't understand English anymore, or he's saying that having a kernel that runs on virtually any handset will fragment the market more than designing a new kernel for each and every fricking model? And that's because you need different drivers? Must be a joke. Surely is.

    I think what the Joker-in-chief means is "If everyone was running Symbian, the market would be less fragmented".

    As for the implicit performance attack, I won't comment as he apparently pulled it out of his ass, and didn't sound too eager to develop. I think BS detectors went off all over the globe with this one.

  21. Pierre

    Wookiees come from Kashyyyk

    But Chewbacca lives on Endor. It doesn't make sense. Therefore, Linux is unfit for the mobes.

    And, Pete: you bust be confusing Linux with your GNU-Linux distro of choice. Linux doesn't have hundreds of variants of CD burners or image viewers. Linux is a kernel.

  22. Dan Silver badge

    Linux in the mobile market

    I can't wait to spend a weekend setting up after turning it on for the first time.

    If I make a call, what are the chances of pulseaudio crashing?

    Does it come with GCC so I can compile my application from source if it doesn't work with the distro in my mobile phone?

    Etc etc...

  23. EmperorFromage

    Sad but true

    Speaking as a developer, the Linux kernel is just brill for mobile phones. The problem lies with a number of manufacturers that confuse "Linux phone" with "smart phone". There are a number of Linux phones out in the market place, but very few third party applications for such phones. That stems from the almost complete lack of standardized APIs for the cellular space.

    However this doesn't mean that it will always be this way, efforts are well underway for instance in and around the LiMo foundation to supply these standardized APIs that can transform linux into a viable smart phone platform. But of course LiMo is a in a race with several contenders ( iPhone, Android etc) to determine which ecosystem of application , developers and devices will be the dominating one in the years ahead. Thankfully, it won't be Symbian.

  24. SynicNZ

    Symbian is a pig

    What is never mentioned in that Symbian is a pig to program

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Symbian lol

    Symbian may be a pig to program, it is also an absolutely awful mobile OS, it constantly falls over, is slow, and no matter how many bells and whistles you put on it aint gonna cover up the fact that its crap. I for one will never knowingly buy a symbian phone again after past experience. And this Symbian idiot obviously doesnt realise how many pieces of equipment with less processing power than a mobile phone actually use linux, it sounds like they really did they're research on this one.

  26. Jon Lawrence


    As pointed out in the original report & in various comments, Linux is the Kernel.

    Your problems with xorg have nothing to do with Linux

  27. Joe Montana


    The reason for using X11 on a phone is compatibility and ease of porting. One of the key things that attracts me to a linux phone is that i can run the same apps (obviously within the constraints of the i/o capabilities) as i can on my desktop. OSX can do this to a degree with a jailbroken iphone, and windows mobile is effectively a scam - its windows only by name, it cannot run windows programs.

    Phones these days are far more powerful than computers were just a few years ago, so what i would like is a phone that functions as a normal smartphone, but which can also be connected to a full size keyboard and screen (you could also develop screens capable of supplying power to the phone)... That way you can take your desktop everywhere, have your data and apps with you all the time. I'm sure a modern phone would be more than capable of running all the apps most people would need.

    You could also develop apps with multiple interfaces, so there is a single backend that does all the work, a frontend for use on the phone screen and another frontend for use with a full size keyboard/screen attached.

  28. paul
    Thumb Up


    Linux must be a viable threat to Nokia and Symbian. Otherwise why mention it?

  29. Anonymous Coward

    Portability of Linux apps

    As a user who has run Linux on a lot of odd ball hardware, back to 1.x days, I recognize some of the problems. A lot of advocacy revolves around the "bright center" of the moment (currently Ubuntu), but the periferial regions are often less well kept.

    glibcisms (if you go uclibc), version problems (e.g. when I used mklinux on old Macs), archs that are miles behind (Alpha, m68k), heaps of software that was not portable (64-bitisms, alignment problems, though those seem to have been stamped out in recent years).

    Most linux users know "what is possible" from Slashdot, and take a simple "it runs linux" as "it runs the standard set without problems", and don't realise that it often requires dealing with patched kernels, patched or old toolchains etc.

    And if you ask me, after a fat 13 years of Linux experience (and even more BSD), what I mis most from Windows, it is simply "stability".

    Not stability of the machine, but the fact that I can't dump some apps on a DVD and have a fair chance of running them 5 years from now on my then Linux system.

  30. Dr. Mouse

    @AC 22:42

    "It is not necessary to use X11 at all, indeed I think it is crazy to do so in an embedded device. Use the framebuffer (direct) or similar."

    While I agree that this is the most efficient way to present graphics on a Linux based embedded device, you are forgetting one thing: at the moment, Linux phones will be used mainly by geeks (and I fall into that cattegory ATM, I'm saving up for a Neo Freerunner). These geeks will not all be propper programmers, but will want to be able to port existing apps to their phones. This is easiest to do if X is used.

    I am not saying this is good for the future of linux phones, but it is how things are at the moment. They have to pander to their most likely customers, their current market.

    Personally, I thing work should be done on a slimmed down X server designed for embedded devices (it may already be done, or in progress, but I havent seen it).

    Thing is, a common platform accross your desktop, servers, phone, set top box, in car entertainment system, home automation system, robotic slave and modified microwave/freezer combo (so you can instruct it to load in the required ready meal and cook it, then have the robot deliver it to wherever you are in the house) means you only have to write one application. Sure it may have to be done differently on the different platforms, but the core can be the same, with different interfaces and/or extensions dependant on the platform. I know some people who use Windows Mobile phones for this very reason.

    All this will never lead to the most efficient use of a device (whether that be PC, phone, or automated washing machine), but it CAN make the most efficient use of a programmer. And we all know that most geeks are lazy, so guess which wins?

  31. alistair millington
    Thumb Up

    Sour grapes?

    Anyone else think this is just one person trying to slag off the competition???

    Linux might not be designed for the mobile phone market, yet. Then again neither is windows mobile and it seems to be doing alright. :)


    A horse can be trusted to take you home at any time, if trained. Horses also are keenly aware of their surroundings and so avoid trees, bushes, holes in the ground, other cars, ditches, bus stops, people and anything else that cars can run into. It's the self preservation factor, then again with ultimate four by four and slip diff arrangements they can easily get in and out of the said ditches etc.

  32. Lefty
    Thumb Down

    Word Games

    Mr. Panagrossi is playing word games here. Yes, in one sense "Linux" is the name of the kernel, but it's also a commonly used shorthand for a fairly standard operating system based on that kernel, plus community components including GTK+, Gstreamer, BlueZ, etc., etc.

    For a Symbian representative--and remember, there are multiple different and incompatible UI implementations which sit on top of Symbian, Series 40, Series 60, UIQ, etc.--to claim that Linux is fragmented is fairly amusing.

    The LiMo Foundation has published its first set of core APIs back around the beginning of the year. Those will operate the same way on all LiMo based phones, and the degree of "fragmentation" around those core APIs is nonexistent. Those core APIs will continue to be extended as LiMo's work moves forward. As Morgan says, it's LiMo's goal to produce a consistent operating system for cell phones.

    (As far as the OpenMoko phone goes, X11 isn't the problem. In our experience with the device, the graphics performance of the hardware--even on the newer model, the "Freerunner"--has been extremely disappointing. X runs just fine on ARM-based devices.)

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "When you ask the Linux solution providers what percentage of software runs across all of their platforms, the answer is near zero per cent."

    SymbianOS is hardly a role model for software compatibility.

    Writing code that runs on all S60 and UIQ phones is akin to sewing buttons on farts.

  34. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    As long as..

    my mobile phone has a alarm on it, and more importantly snooze.. I don't care what my phone runs on.

    Windows Mobile has a great feature for those with persistant wives, it's called the predictive crash feature.. it always happens mid call when the ball and chain needs to vent some abusive anger down the line

  35. Darren Starr

    Have programmed for Symbian... it's not suitable

    for anything. It is by far the worst operating system I've ever programmed for (I have not programmed for brew though) and I've programmed a lot of them.

    Unline Linux which simply isn't designed, Symbian is the most poorly designed operating system on the planet. From the arcane build system, to the ass backwards executable format, to the botched as hell forced MVC document architecture to the shitty as hell memory hacks for substandard exception handling. Symbian is an excellent example of how to do ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING WRONG!!!

    I mean, it's almost as if they set out from the very start to try and show the world they can make the worst shit imaginable and still manage to sell it. I wonder if they're all sitting around laughing about all the suckers they've pawned their diarhea on.

    His point that Linux doesn't have any real standards as a full platform is entirely valid. Linux is a bunch of different tools and utilities, but didn't Series 60 and UIQ spawn from the same nightmarish hell as this? Maybe if Nokia actually adopts Linux, they can consolidate it a bit. Now they own TrollTech and Qtopia, it should be possible.

  36. Anonymous Coward

    Linux vs Symbian

    I think Nokia is worried that various mobile phone makers are moving either to Windows Mobile or Linux type approaches. The great Nokia plan has been to keep or control everything under one roof, be it application security or know-how on Symbian.

    Nokia still produces good mobile handsets. That cannot be denied - else they wouldn't control that spectrum of the market.

    While I do agree with the comment that Linux is just a kernel - its a very successful one (more successful to development than Symbian or anything Nokia ever did). Perhaps there has been too much emphasis on the mobile phone remaining as a phone. I personally take the contrary position that mobile phones are fully fledged computers and Symbian did not accept that in its development.

    Our projects with Symbian have been costly, slow and difficult. We didn't have access to low level API functions for a great deal of time. Doing simple tasks was complex and full of red tape. Windows Mobile has been quick, the development tools have been fantastic (dot Net) and I'm eager to see what Android comes out with (if it comes out at all in any major way). Developers will follow the platform adopted by the market - devoid of the red tape controls created by Nokia (code signing etc).

    Have to admit that Symbian is the past - it ideas are based on 30 year old software engineering philosophy (an Psion code). Linux, Windows Mobile and other operating systems are the future because they are so easily modifiable and nothing new needs to be understood. Out of the Darwinian operating system pool something will definitely arise - growling and screeching perhaps.

  37. John

    As one Mr Gandhi commented...

    “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

  38. B5uce Perens

    Symbian and fragmentation?

    Symbian has four different GUIs. Pretty much every phone has its own load of their OS. They have a big fragmentation problem. At least with Open Source, especially when you're talking about the GPL pieces, it's possible to merge the good work into the main thread without getting a signature.

    Symbian's main problem as they transition to Open Source seems to be that they haven't figured out what is differentiating about their system and what isn't. I am still having a lot of trouble believing that their kernel is differentiating - in the face of Linux - and thus worthy of continued large investements. Haven't they watched Sun's efforts to win market share with Solaris? Solaris is a fine system, it just isn't that differentiating for Sun any longer. Customers don't care whether it's there or not. Developers sometimes do, but not enough to make their market.

    Anyway, they don't make friends in the Open Source world by bad-mouthing other projects. They should know better.


  39. mirmit

    What are we talking about

    Linux Fragmentation. In fact it's the stack above the linux kernel which lead to fragmentation. You have Openmoko, QTopia, A La Mobile, ALP, Maemo, Moblin to name very few of them. They are more likely incompatible between them. some rely on KDE, some on GTK, some on other FW. and it's similar on the desktop environment.

    Even Nokia it at the head of two incompatible environment Maemo for the table and QT/QTopia.

    Here I just browse the UI aspect. I'm not talking about the rest of the frameworks. The data connection access usually rely on the existing standard UNIX/Linux stuff. But a soon as you are touching phone specifics, you have the choice across variety of stuff. ALP, QTopia, OpenMoko have different ways of handling the SMS, phone call and so one.

    If this is not looking like fragmentation, what is fragmentation then?

    All can be said on Symbian, but it provide a kernel AND a complete set of frameworks for all the required features around a phone. on to of this the UI is specialized, some feature are added by the UI provider or the handset maker.

    Even Java on mobile suffer from fragmentation. How many complains from developers who have an application not running the same on two devices from the same handset vendor.

  40. Jerry Panagrossi

    All good comments...even the firey ones

    The article, or rather the headline of the article, didn't quite capture the wider context of the discussion and my comments made as a panelist at the Mobilize event in San Francisco last week. In particular, the point that I made regarding the costs associated with developing operating system platforms for mobile phones, regardless of whether it’s Symbian OS based, Linux based or other, was not accurately represented.

    GigaOM posted a video of the panel session, which can be found at:

    If you fast-forward 34 minutes into the video, you will see that the point that I was making regarding Linux was not that it is unfit for mobile phones but rather that "fitness" as a concern for mobile handset manufacturers comes down to an issue of license versus labor--you either license a mature mobile platform, such as Symbian OS, which has been purpose-built for mobiles, has shipped on 225+ million phones and has evolved to meet stringent market requirements over the past 10 years, or you invest in the labor required to develop a solution based on Linux, which is a non-trivial investment.

    As we prepare for the next exciting chapter in the evolution of Symbian OS, we look forward to delivering a unified Symbian platform to the open source community and making it available royalty-free under the terms of the Eclipse Public License (EPL). As an open source offer, Symbian OS--the most proven, widely adopted, open mobile platform with global industry support--will enable all players throughout the mobile value chain to maximize benefits from economies of scale and thereby decrease development costs.

    // Jerry

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