Nokia SVP of Symbian Smartphones talks portrait QWERTY, Symbian 'bashing,' and MeeGo devices

Jo Harlow, Nokia's Senior VP of Symbian Smartphones was in Amsterdam for the kickoff of the Symbian Exchange and Exposition, giving us the chance for a sit down with the seven year Nokia veteran. How could we resist given the recent launch of Symbian^3, Nokia's new iterative approach to Symbian updates, and then Monday's (expected) bombshell that the Symbian Foundation would hand over operation responsibility for the OS to Nokia. While the full transcript is available after the break, we wanted to highlight the following:

  • Symbian user interface improvements are Nokia's top priority. According to Jo, "We are planning a few user interface improvements in early 2011 including split screen text input, portrait QWERTY -- there will be other improvements coming shortly after particularly in the visual appeal of the graphics of the device."

  • While Jo stopped short of saying that changes in the Symbian Foundation will accelerate Symbian updates, she did concede that it eliminates a step making things "simpler" -- and that's a positive thing.

  • Jo also reminded us that Nokia's plans for MeeGo stretch beyond traditional handset formats. And just like Symbian handsets will form a "fat center" in Nokia's device portfolio, she expects Nokia's more diverse MeeGo offerings to be "pretty big and fat as well."

Read on for the full interview in addition to Jo's thoughts on Symbian's "infinite possibility to surprise people," Stephen Elop's performance in his first two months on the job, and her frustration at not being able to move faster amidst all of the "Symbian bashing."

Engadget: Do you get frustrated by the perception that people have of Symbian or maybe internally at the company's inability to get timely updates out to the user interface? It took Palm and Microsoft two years to completely redo their mobile operating systems. S60 5th was released in October 2008 and here we are more than 2 years later with Symbian^3 that looks a lot like S60 5th...

Jo Harlow: From a visual appeal perspective, yes.

Engadget: And that was an OS targeting touchscreen slates. So do you feel frustration from both ends and does formalizing Nokia's role in Symbian development relieve some of that frustration?

Jo Harlow: Of course, I am... yeah, it is frustrating to not go faster. To hear the kind of bashing of Symbian that you see externally.

Engadget: And the bashing is incorrect often because it's a UX issue, a user interface issue, not an OS issue.

Jo Harlow: Exactly, but for a lot of people who are doing the bashing, it's difficult to explain the distinction. But on the other side of that I also know the work that we're doing. I know that we have an infinite possibility to surprise people. Because the expectations at least in the trade, for those people who follow the guys like yourself, the high tech blogs, and that's not every consumer, certainly -- then we have the ability to bring great surprises that will have wide wide effects.

Engadget: Is that because expectations are so low at this moment or because of your ability to innovate?

Jo Harlow: I think it's both. I think expectations are quite low. I think that we have made some significant changes in terms of how we will develop and how we will deliver that gives us more ability to deliver changes faster, improvements faster, versus putting all the eggs in one basket that is one single software release where we're changing lots of things throughout the stack.

Engadget: Regarding the iterative approach to making updates to the Symbian OS, what are we going to see first? For example, you could tweak the video frame rate of the N8 or you could change user interface elements. Where is the priority and what time frame are we looking at?

Jo Harlow: I think clearly the priority is on the user interface. We are planning a few user interface improvements in early 2011 including split screen text input, portrait QWERTY -- there will be other improvements coming shortly after particularly in the visual appeal of the graphics of the device.

Engadget: Is that first half or first quarter of 2011?

Jo Harlow: It's early [laughter]. The point is, what we are driving to do is bringing the improvements when they're ready as opposed to what would have happened in the past is we would have to wait for some next major release.

Engadget: Does the announcement made yesterday of the Symbian Foundation giving up operational duties accelerate things in terms of software releases?

Jo Harlow: It eliminates a step, certainly. As almost all the development is being done by Nokia today, and the interface has been with the foundation in terms of the integration, etc to be made available to other people. So now that that step and the time and activity of the folks in Nokia who work with the Foundation, that goes away. So does that bring us some time to market benefits? Some. Hard to dimensionalize really how much that is but it does make things simpler and that's a positive thing.

Engadget: Internally, everyone is developing on Qt now. MeeGo is reporting to Alberto Torres and the Symbian developers report to you. What does that look like internally, are your groups speaking?

Jo Harlow: Of course.

Engadget: Are the developers sitting next to each other or are they in different locations around the world?

Jo Harlow: Well, we have developers in a number of different locations in the world and that is true for Symbian and for MeeGo. And also let's not forget that we have our services organization that's doing development on the different services clients. And at many different levels between Symbian and MeeGo there is discussion on how do we make functionality the best... let's take NFC for example, or Voice UI for example, there's lots of dialog between the two on how to make that the best possible experience for consumers even though it might be delivered slightly differently given the capabilities of the two platforms. And then with services, we work very closely together with the individual service development teams who also are in different locations. Being the company the size that we are, having acquired a number of different groups has given us some geographic diversity but our mode of operation is to put teams together for short periods of time, bringing them together physically as well as using all the tools available to have them work together when they are geographically separated.

Engadget: so the development teams do work together closely especially when there are feature sets...

Jo Harlow: Yes, when there are common feature sets, that's right.

Engadget: Nobody talks about Series 40. You have three operating systems now yet the discussion is always about Symbian and MeeGo. Symbian is being pushed down as part of the democratization of smartphones so at what point does Series 40 disappear?

Jo Harlow: Well, I think first off you have to look at the whole picture, yes smartphones are coming to lower price points. But look at what's happening in what you can call mobile phones or features phones etc. What's happening price-point wise there. The desire for the kinds of features for that have historically been provided by feature phones is also going down. So there's still another billion and a half people who don't have a mobile phone yet. And for those who've been in the most entry level, who are stepping up to feature phones, those devices are needing to become more affordable as well. So I think there's a long future for Series 40. I think Series 40 faces similar challenge as smarpthones in how do we get lower in order to attract that next billion people. And that includes from a services perspective as well. Not just the navigation type services but what are the kinds of services we've been developing with Nokia Life Tools, etc. that are especially attractive to consumers who live in a world that is quite different from our own.

Engadget: The first MeeGo handsets are coming in 2011. So in terms of units shipped, in three years, what does that distribution look like for MeeGo devices, Symbian, and Series 40. Is Symbian the fat chewy center?

Jo Harlow: I think certainly Symbian is the fat middle. I think however, when you look at MeeGo I don't think that you can look at MeeGo as being just devices that look like that [holds up Nokia E7]. I think what MeeGo is, is encompassing more than just what we have historically thought of as the phones business. So I would expect that to be pretty big and fat as well.

Engadget:You're speaking from a Nokia perspective because Intel is doing its thing?

Jo Harlow: Yes, from a Nokia perspective. And of course, that is one of the values of MeeGo more broadly is the attractiveness to different device classes.

Engadget: Stephen Elop has been at Nokia for two months. What impact has he made already?

Jo Harlow: In terms of the decision on the Foundation, let's remember that it's the board of the Foundation that made that decision, Not Nokia or Nokia's board. We support that decision and Stephen has been very actively involved in understanding the issues facing the Foundation and has supported the ultimate decision made by the Foundation board. But I think the bigger answer to your questions is that what you see is Stephen's guiding hand. I think Stephen is and will have a major impact on Nokia because number one he's a software guy, and number two he's a product guy, and number three is he's hugely engaging. So he's actively engaging our employees, customers, he's been traveling around the world meeting with different customers and in many ways taking it all in.

Engadget: Right, he said his first order of business was to listen.

Jo Harlow: Exactly, and that is exactly what he's been doing. In the mean time, being very engaged in the business issues of the day. So he's with me actively reviewed all of the plans that we've had and that we've ultimately announced as well as keeping very close to this situation as it developed as well. I just want to reinforce that Nokia didn't decide to limit the operations of the Foundation, that was a decision of the Foundation board.

Engadget: Who's on the Foundation board?

Jo Harlow: Well, we have one seat on the Foundation board but it's made up of other members like Samsung, Sony Ericsson as well as AT&T, Vodafone, etc.

Engadget: One last question, Jon Rubinstein from Palm famously said that he never used an iPhone. I assume you've used competitive devices?

Jo Harlow: Of course.

Engadget: So you know what you're up against?

Jo Harlow: I use them on a regular basis.

Engadget: Do you have a favorite?

Jo Harlow: Not that I'm saying [laughing]. My favorite of the moment is an E7!