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Symbian Accelerates Graphics and Data Print E-mail
Written by SymbianOne   
Tuesday, 16 October 2007
Symbian Ltd. has made two significant technology announcements at the Smartphone Show. These promise a quantum leap in user interface graphics and wireless data speeds. Symbian's Jorgen Behrens, executive vice-president, marketing, explains the technology to Richard Bloor.

Symbian is introducing new architectures within Symbian OS to improve features and performance in the areas of graphics and networking. According to Jorgen these new technologies will allow Symbian OS licensees to offer movie like user interfaces and very high speed IP data communications.

The graphics technology is called ScreenPlay. "With ScreenPlay we have almost completely re-architected the Symbian OS graphic system." says Jorgen. "The goal is to allow our licensees to create visually attractive, user attractive user interfaces on a par with the best you see today on high end desktop operating systems." To achieve this Symbian Ltd. has built a new graphics sub-system that will leverage the capabilities of graphics accelerators for all UI components, not just games. Currently graphics accelerators are usable only through OpenGL ES, where the developer takes over the entire screen in a game, for example. Symbian Ltd. has now moved the graphics accelerator underneath the graphics stack, which allows any UI content to be created using a device's graphics accelerator. Jorgen explains that Symbian is doing this "because we anticipate a large number of future devices will be using graphics acceleration hardware and at the same time the demand for very visually rich interfaces will grow."

In addition to replacing the existing graphics sub-system a new component is being introduced: the Composition Engine. This engine is able to take multiple graphics 'surfaces' and overlay and blend them in a compositor. "This will allow developers to write video stream to one surface and a UI dialog to another," says Jorgen. "The Composition Engine can then overlay these surfaces and display them using effects such as semi-transparency. This is the type of experience seen on high-end desktops, with animations, transitions, and similar effects." In addition Jorgen claims ScreenPlay has been implemented "in a very battery friendly way" and, although the technology can take advantage of a hardware graphics accelerator, it will "perform well when relying on software rendering only".

"The platform and UI companies are excited by this technology," says Jorgen. "As they will be able to create much more visually attractive UIs, and of course third-party developers will be able to use the technology in their applications too."

Another advantage of this technology is that it allows much larger screens to be used effectively, particularly when the device has a graphics accelerator. Jorgen suggests that devices with WVGA (800 x 480-pixels) or larger screen sizes are likely in the next couple of years.

In addition, Symbian OS will also be providing support for the OpenVG and Khronos EGL APIs in addition to the current OpenGL ES support, which will be upgraded to OpenGL ES 2.0. Both of these APIs will be available for writing graphics to anywhere within the UI, not just full screens. Symbian Ltd. is also contributing its APIs for surface manipulation to The Khronos Group, for consideration as a standard for advanced graphics programming.

To demonstrate this technology Symbian has created a couple of applications. One shows a cover-flow album selector, which was written in under two weeks using OpenVG. Over the cover-flow a scrolling ticker is displayed as well as a semi-transparent incoming call notification, all while the cover-flow view is still flipping over. A second demonstration shows a semi-transparent video playing over a web site, which can still be navigated while the video runs. Not exactly practical but as Jorgen points out it does showcase the technologies capabilities.

Jorgen notes that this technology is part of Symbian OS v9.5 and has already been delivered to Symbian's customers for use in v9.5 powered phones. Jorgen points out that ScreenPlay is a continuing roadmap of graphics enhancements for Symbian OS.

Like ScreenPlay, FreeWay is a complete re-architecting of the Symbian OS IP networking subsystem and a road map for support of future high speed wireless data services. "WiMAX currently offers wireless data speeds of up to 50Mbps, although practically it runs at about 10Mbps," says Jorgen. "When we get to Super 3G/LTE we could see speeds of over 100Mbps. When you consider that home broadband offers between 2 and 5Mbps, you can see that our technology has to be fast, and it is. Already we have achieved 100Mbps in our labs."

In addition to the raw data speeds, this technology provides significant improvements in latency and jitter, which is vital for real-time IP applications such as VoIP. In addition, the new sub-system has been written to take advantage of ARM's Symmetric Multi Processing (SMP) architecture, support for which Symbian Ltd. announced recently.

As with ScreenPlay, FreeWay is a Symbian OS v 9.5 feature and Symbian's customers have had access to prototypes for "some time" according to Jorgen. The first delivery is, however, limited to the new architecture with its improved performance. Further specific network support will be added as the new high speed networks become available. Jorgen emphasizes that the technology announced is not an end in itself, but a roadmap for future wireless network support over the next few years.

The impetus behind this technology, which Symbian Ltd. has been working on for about 18 months, is "the convergence between desktops, mobiles, and Internet," says Jorgen. "For example, we are seeing today's smartphones offering their user the ability to view complicated Web pages with JavaScript and Flash. These demands are only going to grow and Symbian OS will be leading this demand by enabling devices that operate over networks with very high bandwidths, use multiple cores, and display complex graphics on very large screens. This may sound as though Symbian OS devices are becoming PCs, and at the high end of the market this is in many respects what Symbian OS devices will become."

One obvious problem with these new technologies is the power they could consume. "Battery technology is offering increases in power density of 4 to 8% per year," says Jorgen. "Generally our customers want to use these advances to offer smaller batteries. At the same time, technology advances are increasing power demands." A future Symbian OS device could be downloading a movie, saving it to an SD card, and then time shifting it for display on a high definition screen. This type of processing exercises almost every aspect of Symbian OS. It is therefore very important that such devices do not run out of power in just a few hours. "We have been very carefully to make sure these new technologies offer very good power performance," says Jorgen. "We have done this in the past and have the lead on our competition, and we plan to maintain that lead."

While new technology often takes much longer than anticipated to filter down to products on the high street, these developments suggest some interesting directions for Symbian OS devices. While many will offer similar features to those seen today, but on faster networks and with higher resolution screens, the type of performance Symbian is enabling -movie like graphics, high screen resolutions, high data transfer speeds, and SMP - suggests that high end Symbian devices will be approaching the performance of today's desktops towards the end of the decade. Concerns that one of Symbian OS's weaknesses is a lack of a desktop presence could therefore disappear, without Symbian devices ever becoming fixed.


Both FreeWay and ScreenPlay are being demonstrated at the Smartphone Show.

 


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