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GLOBAL – If you have a Nokia smartphone, then the chances are that it will be running a form of Symbian as its operating system. It’s the software that keeps everything going and includes many of the applications that come installed out of the box. But there’s a lot more to Nokia’s operating system of choice than meets the eye – join us after the break to find out more.

A long history The roots of what was to become the Symbian Operating System (OS) go back over 20 years. British company Psion started developing the predecessor to Symbian, the EPOC OS, for its well-loved digital organiser devices in 1987. EPOC was so-named because it signalled the start of a new epoch; but the rumour spread that it also stood for ‘Electronic Piece of Cheese’.

One OS to rule them all In 1998, smartphone manufacturers allied to develop and re-work the software for use in phones, with the first Symbian device released in 2000. The Nokia 9210 Communicator, the first ‘open’ Symbian phone, allowing owners to install their own applications, was released in 2001.

Phone Juggler Symbian is especially notable for being the first smartphone OS to feature pre-emptive multitasking. It’s obvious what the ‘multitasking’ bit means, but ‘pre-emptive’ means that the operating system can interrupt applications and give resources to another without shutting them down altogether. In practice, it means you can load up your calendar, for example, and then have it running in the background on very low resources until an alarm is due or you bring it back to the front.

Top Ticket It may have started as an electronic piece of cheese, but Symbian has become a very big cheese indeed over the last ten years. Nearly 81 million Symbian smartphones – from many different manufacturers – were sold in 2009, according to industry analyst Gartner, giving it 46.9 per cent of the market.

And very new After nine ‘full’ releases and many more interim releases for specific devices, Symbian Software Ltd. was acquired by Nokia in 2008. It relaunched Symbian – under the care of a foundation – as a software platform that anyone was free to use later that year, with the code becoming fully open-source only a few months ago, in February 2010.

Open Source Symbian is an open-source operating system and software platform. That means anyone can download it from the site and use it free-of-charge – it’s at Of course, though, there’s a bit more to creating your own new smartphone than downloading the platform. The move to open source means it will be used for more devices and is intended to spark faster, greater innovation from both phone manufacturers and developers.

Founder’s Footsteps Symbian is administered by the Symbian Foundation. This independent, non-profit organisation looks after the code, co-ordinates development efforts and communicates its advantages to people. However, they aren’t the main software engineers. Like other open source software, Symbian is actually written by an army of developers, sometimes working for phone manufacturers or software and service vendors, sometimes completely independently.

Symbian^3 is pronounced ‘Symbian Three’ and is (unsurprisingly) the third full platform release from the Symbian Foundation. It brings a faster user interface, improved graphics support for advanced layering and effects, HDMI support for high-quality television playback and better data networking. The forthcoming Nokia N8 will be the first phone to feature Symbian^3.

Symbian^4 is currently at an early stage, though the speedy pace of development means that the foundation expects the first devices in early 2011. The focus of development is on a new user interface – the Direct UI. For developers, Qt – already built into Symbian^3 – will become the standard environment in which applications are written. Qt is an application framework which makes it easier for developers to adapt their code to lots of different devices.

The Door’s Open The Symbian Foundation welcomes ideas for the platform – new devices, features and applications – and not just from people with heavyweight programming or electronic engineering skills. The Symbian Ideas website allows you to submit new proposals or comment and vote on other people’s.

So there you have it. Is there anything else which makes Symbian unique, aside from its heritage as electronic cheese? How many Symbian devices have you owned over the years? Let us know.