Symbian^3 vs iPhone OS 4.0

There is a lot of hype on the upcoming launches of both Symbian^3 as well as the 4th edition of the OS from Cupertino. Considering that both are major upgrades, I have decided to document my thoughts on the various aspects of both operating systems, briefly comparing and contrasting the two on said aspects. This post was inspired by a post on iPhone OS 4.0 by a friend.

N.B: Most of the information were obtained from various online blogs and other sites, so their accuracy isn’t guaranteed.


Multi-tasking is the “big ticket” feature on iPhone OS 4.0, the most awaited feature on it, since copy-paste. Being a systems software engineer, I find this “version” of multi-tasking a little… unpalatable. I do admit its a good solution to the power conundrum on the iPhone/iPod platforms, but taken out of context and comparing it to true multi-tasking, it feels like a poor attempt indeed. For those not in the know, the multi-tasking in iPhone OS 4.0 consists of providing 7 system services which will run in the background, and when an application is sent to the background, any session with the system services are persisted by the services themselves. When the user switches back to the application, the application is brought back from its hibernated state, and the sessions with the background services are restored.

For me, the most striking point in the announcement of this feature was that the older generations of the iPhone (pre-3GS) will not support multi-tasking, due to unmet hardware requirements. In my opinion, this further highlights the level of power consumption by the iPhone OS, since Symbian has been able to provide (at least) comparable batter life numbers despite having supported true multi-tasking for years, and this is not just a theoretical number measured when not multi-tasking. My Nokia phones last an entire day on a full charge, this considering that I have at least 3 background applications running at all times, and listening to music for 2-3 hours, playing the odd YouTube video or two (in-browser, no less), and finally, phone conversations that aggregate to over 2-3 hours. On days that I don’t use the phone as much, the battery charge lasts me for more than 2 days (with the background applications still running). Thus, I don’t buy into “this is the best we can do keeping  power consumption in mind” approach for iPhone OS’s multitasking. There is a better way and Symbian has been doing it for years now.


Another major feature on the new versions of both OSes, is the support for playback and recording of media with high-definition video and surround sound. Both Symbian^3 and iPhone OS 4.0 will feature the ability to playback video with 720p video and surround sound, as well as the ability to record 720p video.  As always, iPhone OS 4.0 will support H.264 and MPEG-4 video, with AAC-LC audio in .m4v, .mp4 or .mov containers. Symbian^3, like S60 5.0 before it, will support a slightly larger set (check this link for more info).

Data protection

iPhone OS 4.0 will allow encryption of e-mails and attachments using the device passcode, as well as expose API to enable other 3rd party applications to do the same. This is definitely an important feature, one which will endear the iPhone to enterprise users. To the best of my knowledge, Symbian^3 doesn’t provide this feature yet.

Mobile Device Management

Again, another win for iPhone OS 4.0. iPhone OS 4.0 provides Mobile Device Management API which will allow wireless configuration and updation of settings for 3rd party applications, enabling enterprises to monitor compliance with corporate policies, and remotely lock or even wipe the device clean.


A huge win for Symbian^3, in my opinion. If your phone can playback HD movies, and  can capture HD movies, is it not logical that it should be able to stream said HD content to an HD TV? Keeping in the spirit of openess, and standard compliance, Symbian^3 will support HDMI-out with HDCP.

Qt 4.6

True cross-platform development capability. Symbian^3 remains un-touched here. Write an application in Qt 4.6 (in C++) and trivially port it to Symbian, Maemo/MeeGo, Windows, Linux, MacOS and just about any other major operating system out there. It can’t get any more cross-platform than that (since iPhone development locks you into Objective-C and Android locks you into Java). Do note that Qt is not a runtime, but a native library, which ensures that  your applications don’t suffer a performance hit.

Other thoughts

Needless to say, there are countless enhancements to either OS, of which, the features of Symbian^3 are available publicly here. Still, much about both OSes is yet to be seen. We will need to wait till the respective flagship devices are launched (Nokia N8 for Symbian^3 and iPhone HD for iPhone OS 4.0) to re-evaluate how these smartphone operating systems stand up to each other.