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Is it really all that bad ?

OK, I've been bashing the Symbian Signed program, but don't get me wrong I understand and appreciate why it's been put in place. It has very admirable aims.

From what I understand Symbian Signed main purpose is to prevent malware and viruses on phones as unlike a PC were a virus might be disruptive and cause data loss, a virus on a phone could do that, and make hundreds if not thousands of pounds / dollars / euros worth a calls to premium rate numbers. This would obviously not be a good idea. So Symbian Signed and Symbian PlatSec ( Platform Security) really aim to tackle this issue using a two pronged approach. First it tracks the author of a piece of software, by obtaining an ACS publisher ID Symbian Signed have some confidence in who you are. Secondly by testing the application they have some confidence that your application is not preforming in a bad way. By using PlatSec they insure that they only have to test the application if you're using any APIs which are deemed to be a dangerous.

I think this is great idea, having lots of phones with viruses on would not be a good idea, for the individual it would be annoying, but for the network operator it would be crippling.

The Economics of the Situation

Let's start with the handset manufacturers, they make phones which they sell to customers. We may think of ourselves as customers, us the end user - we the masses which enter the phone shops, buy the phones and sign up to the contract. But no, we are not the customers that the manufacturers sell too. No, the handset manufacturers sell their phones to the mobile networks. It's the networks which buy the handsets out right. The handsets we the masses pick up for free with our contracts can actually cost the network hundreds of pounds. So to save us paying this huge fee the networks buy the phones, and then give them to us for free. To make their money back the can up their contract rates a little. That way we get a great phone for what seems like nothing at all, and the network gets to attract new customers. Therefore when a handset manufacturer makes a new phone they have to target not just us, but also the network operators.

Now, imagine for a second, that your ISP at home would give you a PC to use to connect to the network, imagine that the ISP could dictate what PCs would work on their network. If the ISP let's any old PC connect to their network then they will have no idea what your PC is doing on-line, but if your ISP has a choice of only allowing PCs they approve to connect to their network, then they have a way to control what you can do. By locking down the PC they provide to you they can prevent you from installing any bad software, and as a result can stop you installing spam software, viruses or other evil things.  - This is exactly what the mobile phone network operators want to do.

Looking to the Future

But looking long term it's easy to see all the available networks converging, there will no longer be a cable broadband provider or a mobile network. Instead we'll all have always connected devices all hooked up to the Internet. All our phone calls, text & data connections will go over an IP connection, any available IP connection. This means we will all be able to make calls from our desk-bound PCs just as easily as we can from our mobile phones.

Applications are moving the same way, look at Google Docs for example. Here we can see applications moving away from the traditional desk bound PC to a server provided service. I believe that we should in the near future be able to edit documents on our phones just as easily as with our PCs. All the data will be held in a central location on a giant farm of servers.

Think of the consequences of reaching this point... we can do everything we could from the PC on a phone, and we can do everything we could from phone on a PC. The only difference is the physical form factor of our "IP Terminal" ( phone / PC ).

As the IP world opens up to provide connections to small devices we carry with us all the time it creates markets for new applications and services. The killer applications will be the ones that make use of and exploit the always with us, and small physical form factor features. One of the first examples of this has already been highlighted by Scott McNealy from Sun, during an interview with The Register he made the following comments [1]:

"There's a pendulum thing where stuff is on the client side and then goes back into the network where it belongs," McNealy said. "The answering machine put voicemail by the desk, and then it went back into the network."

"Your iPod is like your home answering machine," McNealy said. "I guarantee you it will be hard to sell an iPod five or seven years from now when every cell phone can access your entire music library wherever you are."

But this really is the tip of the ice-burg, there are more useful applications that can be developed. Symbian Signed has stacked the cards against the small developer, if effectively places a large tax on writing applications for the platform. I believe that the consequences of this will be to stifle innovation on the Symbian platform. Other platforms with more open approaches to development will see the more imaginative applications appear, and if another, perhaps more open platform obtains the next big killer mobile application it will make life much harder for the Symbian community, and this is something I really don't want to see. 

Surely, there is an another way, one which provides for some safety on what gets installed on the mobile device, and yet provides an open and fair playing field for all developers on the platform.


[1]: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/01/12/sun_apple_snapple/

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