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.

13 thoughts on “Symbian^3 vs iPhone OS 4.0”

  1. Nice article :)

    Maybe you could assign weightages to the features as you perceive, and leave out a little for the miscellaneous aspects. But for comprehensiveness, that would also demand looking into what these 2 OSes have been doing well in the past, so you could assume that if nothing special has been announced about those features, those things would be at least as good in the upcoming revisions..
    Then you would at least have a nice juicy number to compare the two, which you could update as and when more light is shed on both. :)

    P.S: Dunno if that verbose sentence I wrote ended up making sense. If not, reread it till it does! ;) :D

  2. Just a thought on the multi tasking. I have been a loyal Nokia customer and very much an anti-Apple fanboi (just setting the context). But I really like the multi tasking implementation in Apple. It provides virutal multi tasking in 95% of the cases, which will be indistinguishable from the real one. And with regards to the Nokia battery life, are you talking about full screen touch devices that Nokia has. As far as I know they do not last more than a day of moderate use. Also the background apps that mostly run on these are typically not very processor intensive due to the lack of such apps on Symbian. This is just a feeling since I never benchmarked any.

    1. I run Fring, Nokia Messaging (and at times, Joikuspot – which is a real power hog) in the background all the time. With moderate use, I find it lasting more than a day, though, more often than not, I end up using it quite a lot, which drops the battery to 1-2 blocks, and I re-charge it at the end of the day. True, for 95% of the cases, the iPhone version is good enough, and if implemented on Nokia, would further enhance the battery life. Maybe an application can opt-in for the “power saver” multi-tasking mode. Otherwise, it is multi-tasked normally. :-) Something to think about…

  3. Comparision of technical aspects and *features list* Nokia will always be a winner. When it comes to UI and UX Apple products Rock. And about power usage i guess sometimes i charge N97 mini twice a day ;) To be fair its receiving a hammering every day in terms of usage. And yes N8 will be having a 1200mAH battery?? N97 hardly used to give me a days of backup even with a 1400mAH battery..

  4. Probably worth adding Meego/Maemo to the list.

    After using N900 for 2 weekends, I don’t feel like using anything else. Very addictive. :)

    Used iPhone for 1 full week and had no regrets in giving back the device.

    1. This was just a comparison of “new” features in the two OSes. Probably a head-to-head comparison can be done once Symbian^3, iPhone OS 4.0 and MeeGo (1.0 ?) launches.. :-)

  5. very well organised article , but i have a doubt was symbian kernel an opensource , Wasnt it they just provide SDKS ?

    and how will weigh android with symbian ?

  6. Previously, the Symbian OS was completely closed-source and they only provided SDKs for development. Now, the whole of Symbian OS, from kernel and drivers, to the applications, have been released as open-source (under EPL).

    As for a comparison with Android, I don’t have sufficient experience with Android to compare them feature by feature. However, for an idea on my thoughts about Android vs Symbian can be seen in the comments section of the following article:

  7. Being opensource , does that mean to symbian platform i can insert any multimedia framework i want , Is symbian kernel based on any linux kernels ?
    Can you give me link to download the code ( lazy enough :( )

  8. And again y symbian is not chosen for a further competition with iPhone . isnt it nokia targetting meego for upcoming phones?

  9. Yes, you can insert any multimedia framework you want, and NO! Symbian is NOT based on Linux kernel. It is not even monolithic. Its a (soft) real-time microkernel.

    Here’s how to get a PDK (Product Development Kit) which contains the entire Symbian OS source code and binaries.

    MeeGo (which is based on Maemo, a mature and good-looking Linux distribution for Internet Tables – N770, N800, N810) is better equipped, at the moment, to compete with the modern-UI-flaunting iOS and Android. Personally, I am hoping that Symbian will make a major comeback later, once Symbian^4 phones are out (with the revamped touch-centric UI).

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