Mastering Symbian takes 15 months, compared with less than six months for Android, according to a global survey of more than 400 mobile apps developers by VisionMobile, supported by Telefonica Developer Communities. That should make sobering reading for Anssi Vanjoki, the head of Nokia’s newly restructured Mobile Solutions unit, who has just reaffirmed Nokia’s commitment to Symbian, writing in a bullish blog post that it is the “platform of choice for Nokia smartphones.”

Apps developers typically make or break software platforms, so Nokia and its rivals should pay close attention to the gripes and issues arising from the VisionMobile/Telefonica survey. The authors reported: “Symbian emerged as needing the most tedious development effort to accomplish even simple tasks. For developing nine typical applications, a Symbian developer needs to write almost three times more code than an Android developer. iPhone is based on a complex C-like programming paradigm, but its drag & drop design environment allows for far more effective coding, resulting in half as much code authoring as Symbian.”

Download, buy and return

However, the aging Symbian wasn’t the only platform to come under fire. The survey also uncovered considerable dissatisfaction with Java, finding that the majority of developers have lost faith in its “write once, run anywhere” vision. Moreover, it also flagged developers’ concerns about elements of the Android and iPhone ecosystems, particularly when it comes to making apps pay. As well as noting that Android Market still only supports paid-for apps in 13 countries, the report says that “Android has been jokingly called a ‘download, buy, and return business’, referring to how you can get a refund for any paid Android application without stating a reason within 24 hours of purchase – a policy that allows many users to exploit the system.”

Google’s open door policy also means that good quality, paid-for Android apps have to jostle for space with the hundreds of low-quality or copyright-infringing apps in Android Market, according to the report’s authors. But Apple’s quality-controlled and much-hyped App Store is far from a cash machine for the average developer. The study estimates that a standalone developer can hope to sell an average of 1,000-2,000 copies of an iPhone app at an average price of US$1.99. With an app taking months to develop, you don’t need an accountant to tell you that writing iPhone apps isn’t going to earn most developers a good living.

Of course, developers can port their iPhone apps to other platforms – on average each of the respondents in the survey writes apps for 2.8 platforms, which suggests there is at least scope for three handset operating systems to thrive in the mid-to-long term. Whether Symbian will be one of those is going to depend on whether it becomes easier to write for. iPhone and Android developers clearly can’t afford to spend 15 months mastering Symbian.

In his “The fightback starts now” blog post, Vanjoki acknowledged that “Symbian has taken a lot of criticism lately – some of it fair, some not.” Unfortunately for Nokia, perception is often as important as reality. So, Vanjoki’s priority has to be a high-profile campaign to address both developers’ real and imagined concerns and prevent what could become a very damaging exodus.


David Pringle

This article was first published on the GSMA’s Mobile World Live portal. David moderates discussion forums on the site and is a freelance media and investor relations consultant.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members