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Summary:

Qt isn’t the only game in town when it comes to programming software for Symbian 3 devices. Symbian apps can also be developed using web standards of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. I spoke with Larry Berkin from the Symbian Foundation on what this means for developers.

Symbian has unveiled a new initiative intended to attract developers, and is providing web development tools to ease application programming for its open-source mobile platform, Symbian 3. Using the web standards of HTML, CSS and JavaScript, developers can create software for devices such as Nokia’s new N8, which was introduced earlier this week as the first handset to run the Symbian 3 operating system. The web application development tools are available today for Windows, Mac and Linux computers and will supplement the Qt cross-platform framework that already supports application development for Symbian 3 devices.

I spoke with Larry Berkin, the head of Global Alliances and U.S. GM of the Symbian Foundation, about the use of web standards for mobile phone development, mainly because we’ve seen this approach before — Palm touted the same strategy upon introduction of its webOS platform in January of 2009, but the approach didn’t seem to capture the attention of developers who flocked to other popular platforms, by comparison. I asked Berkin why offering a simple, web standards approach might work for Symbian, when it didn’t do so for Palm.

“While there will always be a need for native apps, this will lower the cost of development for developers,” Berkin said. That makes sense because coding with HTML, CSS and JavaScript doesn’t require a deep knowledge of object-oriented programming or as sophisticated a technical understanding of programming in general. And quite literally anyone who has created a web page can build an application using this method — Symbian’s own developer page runs this tagline now: “If you can create a web page, you’re a Symbian 3 app developer.” As far as the inevitable comparisons to Palm are concerned, Berkin spent seven years at PalmSource, the company that created the Palm OS and was later bought by ACCESS, and says “We think it will work out better (for Symbian).”

Web standards might be easier to use than low-level programming languages, but that simplicity can also limit an application’s capabilities. Berkin, however, says this isn’t the case with the new Symbian 3 web development tools, due to accessible APIs. “The breadth of available platform services is good. Using APIs, developers can access the dialer, calendar, camera, contacts and more,” he said. That means that without much additional effort or coding knowledge, a web standards application for Symbian 3 doesn’t have to be a simple client that can only access the web. By exposing APIs to core functionality, Symbian apps built on the new tool set could be used to capture a photo and share it on Flickr, for example.

I also asked Berkin about Qt, the Nokia-owned framework that was originally introduced as a programming method for Symbian 3. “Symbian offers a wide variety of development tools,” Berkin said, “but in terms of absolute numbers, Qt is still limited. This is just another tool in the arsenal.” So a two-pronged approach is the path towards Symbian software — one for experienced programmers looking for a write-once, run in several places with Qt, and one for us everyday folks that have the skills to build a web page. Between the two development tools, Symbian hopes to achieve what Palm hasn’t: a large and thriving development community to support one of the largest, open-sourced mobile device platforms in the world.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

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  2. Smart move on Symbian’s side. Getting developers to move to Qt was a tall order. But a lot of people have already bought into the HTML5, css, JS model.

    I’m sure all the Palm webOS developers are happy with the news as they should be able to port their apps fairly easily (and make a bit more money).

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