The newest edition of the S60 platform from Nokia breaks binary compatibility. That means that applications which ran on 2nd edition devices will not run on 3rd edition devices. Apparently the porting barrier is pretty low (see the writeup at AllAboutSymbian for some info on the currently available apps) but that doesn’t change the fact that it is a binary break. The more I hear people talk about the issue the more I’m reminded of newspeak from 1984. Perfectly rational and generally well informed people start a conversation about the binary break discussing how terrible it is, but eventually come out the other side saying it isn’t that big of a deal.
It just reminds me of one of the repeated blind spots I see coming around in mobile over and over, that people close to a problem tend not to see the problem. People inside mobile have to live with the the binary break, and once they understand it they tend to ignore it. However that’s a crippling issue when having to deal with the mass market. When normal users get burned by the break because they have no idea they should even be concerned, there’s gonna be hell to pay. Just because the apps are available doesn’t mean the incompatibility problem is solved.
How long are publishers going to have to carry multiple Symbian versions? And require that users know if they have a v2 or v3 phone. If you can actually find someone in the US who has a Symbian phone, try asking them what version of the OS they have. Normally they’ll just stare at you. About 5% might say something like “I think it’s Symbian”. Ask them what model phone they have. I tried this acidentally actually. I ordered a 6680 from overseas when they came out, I really wanted one. And I knew they were coming out in the states as 6682 at some point, but I wasn’t following the release news. So I would ask people “If that’s the 6682?” when I saw them with a device that looked like mine. Outside of the people actually at the Mobile Monday events no one knew what I was talking about.
One of the worst instances of newspeakish behavior I’ve seen with respect to this is self-signing applications. v3 of S60 includes a facility for signing applications, with the signed application being signed with a certificate chained from I’m guessing the root certificate at Nokia or Symbian, or the carrier or something. The details aren’t really interesting, except to note that it’s a basic trust extension model like that used by SSL. At which point someone says something like “yea, like SSL, and self signed certs exist in SSL. So self signed Symbian apps are like that! What’s the big deal?” Right.. except when you use SSL you still have encryption being used at the endpoints. I see no equivalent on the Symbian side, it seems just wasted overhead. It’s more like using PGP/GPG for your email messages. But instead of signing the messages you want to sign and leaving the other ones untouched you instead tack on a big chunk of meaningless data to the unsigned ones saying “hey, this isn’t signed”. Not very useful.
So what does self-signing gain you for Symbian apps? After hearing an explaination of signing most people go “Oh, yea, to protect users, so I can deal with self-signing.” NO!!! The question is still unanswered. What’s being done with the certificate info? Is it used when installing an upgrade? If I install an app for which I have a previous version does it check to make sure that the newer one is signed with the same key? If I take the time to validate the identity of an application publisher can I check the fingerprint ID against a hardcopy I got from them in advance? Can I install my own certificates, and will the phone then treat apps signed with those certs as trusted? I see answers to none of this stuff in the public discourse. I don’t even see mention of it, and that makes me think no one out there is really considering the issue.
And to top it all off, all that stuff I mentioned is geek stuff. No user is ever going to check fingerprint IDs for their apps. They’re just going to ignore the warnings and pound accept over and over till they get to their app. Which will probably end up somewhat crippled by the restrictions, and fundamentally uninteresting. So I just don’t see how this really benefits users. On the other hand.. I don’t have to think at all to see how it benefits Symbian, Nokia, and the carriers. It benefits them in a slash-and-burn/rape-your-customers/scorched-earth kinda way. But it benefits them directly at least. Good for them, hope they’re proud.