Celestial Weasel (celestialweasel) wrote,
Celestial Weasel

Smartphones And Beyond - David Wood

A history of Symbian - the rise and fall, one might say - by one of the senior executives of the company.

Much as I like failology anyway, this has particular interest to me because
a) I owned various Psion / Symbian devices - including the GeoFox One http://www.totallytrygve.com/computer.php?item=33&picture=0&page=0 (one of the things on the internets suggested that sold about 1000 of them, this is about 997 more than I assumed they had sold, I always kind of assumed I was one of about 3 people who had bought one). I donated the GeoFox to the museum of computing at Bletchley Park along with my Olivetti P6040 (http://www.old-computers.com/museum/computer.asp?st=1&c=836).
b) one of my friends, S, was very interested at PDAs at the time so we would discuss then quite a lot. For reasons that escape me for the moment, after he and I both moved on from where we worked together he ended up going to various product briefings, talked to senior people in the industry etc.
c) As I may have said before, my immediate predecessor in my previous job - we are going back about 20 years now - left to work at Psion, then Symbian, and had a fairly senior technical role. He is mentioned in the book a few times. Amusingly, his CV on LinkedIn has my previous employer airbrushed from his CV. I guess cobbling together a not terribly inspired Mac / Windows desktop tool to support a consultancy's in house consulting method doesn't fit in with the grand narrative trajectory of his career.
d) Also, as I have probably said to many of you many times, I stand before you as someone who bought some Psion shares at about 4 pounds a share, watched them gradually drop to about £2.50, then sold them a few weeks before the Symbian venture was anounced and the shares shot up in value!
On the third of these points, now "to be fair" (TM) clearly people change and grow through their careers, he was saddled with using a bizarre framework he didn't choose (so was I until we gave up and rewrite the software in MFC) and aptitude at cobbling together yada yada yada does not necessarily correlate to aptitude at designing mobile computing / phone frameworks. However, the software I inherited was not software one would necessarily want the developer of making major architectural decisions about a major platform. [Oooh, get her]

The book grew on me as I read through it. Wood is no great prose stylist and I did think that the prose style might on some level be due to his hanging out too much with Scandinavians.

It is hard to say exactly what lessons I felt could be drawn from the saga. It did strike me though there is a particularly British odour about the failure, some resonances with things I have experienced and/or witnessed over the years. I think on the whole though the overwhelming issue was Weasel's Law Of Failology: 'if you do X and someone else does Y and it turns out the market wants Y you are pretty much screwed because your attempt to make your thing do Y is going to be riven by technological and political issues and people who will spend ages swearing that More-or-less-X is Y really etc. etc.' (yes, I know the formulation isn't terribly snappy).

One thing which wasn't obvious to me at the time but should have been is that the reason the industrial bit of Psion switched to using Windows CE is that when they wanted help from Symbian the response was essentially 'well, that's very nice, but [list of companies] are going to ship millions of phones so they're more important, go away'. I have seen this sort of thing myself in my sordid, degraded career.

An interesting thing I thought about the book is that, compared to many histories of computing of the last 20 years or so, there wasn't an enormous distance between what seemed to be going on and what the book indicates was going on. Partly I think this is because I was following it more closely, but partly I think because the British computing press is less prone to publish whatever lies they are told - from other books it is clear that various American magazines were quite capable of discussing things as though they were about to be released that had barely been started.

Also, the very idea of having a large number of people in London working on an operating system. London, with all its expense etc. seems hard to comprehend. And there were a lot of people - this Register article talks about 3000 people transferring to Accenture http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/04/27/nokia_cuts_memo/ (not all in London presumably). Whatever happened to them all?

The final chapter is Wood's overview of other technologies that he thinks might change the world, including 'Transhumanism' and 'A manifesto for Humanity+'. I ignored that for obvious reasons :-)

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