Monday, 1 February 2010

Symbian: the problem with crowds

I read an amusing article in Forbes last week about Symbian, the world's most common and least interesting mobile phone OS (link). The journalist's contention is that by 'crowdsourcing' (a repulsive management term that makes me flinch every time I hear it) Symbian produces an engaging and multifaceted product.

My opinion is the opposite. To me, the wisdom of the crowd is a con that excuses lazy or untalented product designers from their responsibilities. The great leaps forward in human understanding have almost all come from the inspiration of a few individuals, not from some loosely democratic design-by-committee. Even giant technological feats like the Manhattan Project were driven by a core group of smart people who had the vision and ability to see and accomplish their goal.

To take a more relavent example: Apple's design team consists of a small group, working out of California. Sure, they have great understanding of the needs of the crowd, but they certainly don't listen actively to their ideas or desires. Instead, Apple tells the crowd what they want and, invariably, shows them a new way of doing things and hence move the game on. Truth is that most of us are experts in one thing or another (however prosaic), but few of us can really envision a new way of using a handset or accessing the Internet or finding a Starbucks!

This, then, is the fundamental problem with the Symbian way of doing things and why, in my opinion it is the beige of handset operating systems. Inoffensive, but deeply flawed. Nokia's weak and weakening strategic grasp on the industry must be due in part to their continuing involvement with Symbian, which has damaged the usability of their handsets for no obvious gain. Meanwhile Apple and Google forge ahead with OS X and Android and Samsung, LG et al are capturing more and more share in the mass market.

Perhaps now is the time for the old guard (Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola) to forget about the wisdom of the crowd and concentrate on good old fashioned product design. It worked fifteen years ago, so it might just work now...

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