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Symbian DevZone - OPL - The Open Programming Language?

by Richard Bloor, March 24, 2003

OPL was a stalwart of applications development for both hobbyists and commercial developers on most of Psion’s range of PDAs. OPL was not included as a standard feature on the Nokia 9210 and appeared to be on the way out as a development option. Now OPL is to be made Open Source and promises a low cost, convenient development option to hobbyist and commercial developers alike on the next generation of Symbian OS phones. - Printer Friendly Version



OPL was an on-device development language for the majority of the Psion PDA range, starting in its earliest form on the Psion Organiser and continuing through to the latest netpad offerings. However with the release of Version 6.0 of Symbian OS, OPL was no longer offered as part of the standard application suite. As a result, OPL was not shipped with the first Symbian OS v6.0 phone, the Nokia 9210 Communicator.




OPL did not die though, in 2001 Symbian released to developers a full beta version of OPL and a runtime for Nokia 9210 owners, with the full development kit becoming available to all in April 2002. According to David Mery, Technology Outreach at Symbian, “The response to the beta for the Nokia 9210 was very encouraging - indeed, feedback from developers helped us move forward and release a non-beta (version 1.00 release) runtime after several months of testing. Since OPL was released, we've seen a gradual flow of new OPL applications, mainly ported from Symbian OS v5. However, what was clear was that to ensure the long-term survival of OPL, it needed to be available on the growing number of mass-market Symbian OS phones.”

It was these considerations, coupled, I suspect, with a certain dogged determination amongst the OPL developer community, and some Symbian staff, which resulted in Symbian announcing in December 2002 that they would make OPL an Open Source project. David Mery said, “The decision to open source was mainly driven by the desire to ensure the future of OPL in the most cost-effective and community friendly way. The development of OPL is not something Symbian can directly commit full-time resources to, so the supportive, enthusiastic community seemed like the most obvious solution to try.”

One of the key community players has been Ewan Spence who like many people in the UK discovered computing in the early eighties with the help of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. He bought his first Psion, a Series 3a, while at University, after seeing an advert for "Portable Computer, £50." Since then Ewan has almost always had a Psion, in some form, with him no matter where he was.

Ewan started developing OPL almost straight away on his Series 3, a relatively easy move from the ZX Spectrum, but it was only when he got a Series 5 that his OPL programming became serious. He became involved in FreEPOC an organization which releases free software for Symbian OS. More recently he has been spreading the OPL message through All About Symbian (www.allaboutsymbian.com) with a series of tutorials introducing OPL to the new programmer. There was however an ulterior motive for this new activity. “I was aware of camps within Symbian that continued to believe in OPL” said Ewan “but various commercial issues had sidelined it in favor of Java development. So one of the main aims of the project at All About Symbian was to get OPL back to the negotiating table.”

In the summer of 2002 while talking with Symbian about issues arising from his activities at FreEPOC Ewan found himself acting as the “voice” of the OPL and fledgling Internet community. “Symbian needed to know what the community was thinking” said Ewan “but somehow avoid all the chaff that would come with a mass consultation exercise.”

In December 2002 Ewan was invited to Symbian's Head Office to attend a Developer Partners meeting. “Two things stood out at that meeting” said Ewan “The first was that companies normally seen as competitors in the marketplace were all sitting round the table with a common goal to make Symbian OS accessible to developers at every level. The second was that, as the OPL community representative my opinions and observations were given as much weight as those of the commercial attendees.”

It was from this meeting that the decision that OPL would be released as Open Source came.

There is still some work to do before the Open Source project gets off the ground. What has been decided is that the full OPL package including the runtime, translator, OPXs (C++ extensions which add functionality to OPL) and the PC tools will be part of the Open Source project. A number of issues around the organization of the project are still being worked through by Symbian, with the goal of being able to announce the details during the Exposium 03 (http://www.symbian.com/exposium) being held at the end of April.

While the project is obviously good news for OPL developers, indeed all those people who would like to give programming a go on their Symbian OS phone but find C++ or Java too esoteric, Symbian’s licensees have also welcomed the move.

“While Nokia is focusing on C++ and Java we welcome the move to open source OPL as an additional option for developing Symbian OS applications.” said Colin McKell-Redwood, Business Development Manager, with Mobile Software Unit - Nokia Mobile Phones.

“The more routes developers have to get applications onto Symbian OS phones the better.” said Bruce Carney, Senior manager, Smartphone applications at Sendo “We are certainly positive about any new environment which allows developers to build applications for Series 60. And the Open Source approach I think will attract some of the most technically competent people in the industry. The thought that one day we may be able to create simple programs on our smartphones is really very neat.”

While at Siemens Oliver “Oz” Zechlin, Global Marketing Manager for Application and Services for smartphones said, “I would love to see OPL available for our Series 60 smartphone. Java and C++ require quite a lot of knowledge to create applications, Basic languages like OPL are more accessible, people can work out how to program casually and easily. OPL opens up the possibility of really exciting applications from domain experts with little or no development background. Hopefully now OPL is going Open Source this will happen.”

Symbian is keen to create a vibrant community around OPL, developers working with open source software and OPL application developers. “We are looking forward to welcoming a range of developers to the OPL open source project” said David Mery “I hope we will have a diverse range of people with motivations ranging from self interest, those who want to add OPL support to their own products (be they phones, IDEs or apps), through to those keen to help the Symbian OS community and developers who are simply committed to a belief in open or free source.”

Getting involved in the project and maintaining or porting OPL will require a good knowledge of C++ coupled with an understanding of Symbian OS, as OPL itself is written in C++. However, as with any open source project there will be an opportunity for anyone with an interest to be involved in activities such as testing.

Ultimately OPL will not challenge the dominance of Java and C++ as the preeminent languages for development on Symbian OS. Equally it is unlikely to affect the support for Visual Basic development through AppForge's MobileVB, which is relatively expensive for hobby or casual developers. OPL does have many advantages for the small startup software house or hobby developer and in the past these developers have been a source of both unique and innovative applications as well as those addressing niche markets which are not commercially viable. It will be free, is already powerful enough to develop fully featured applications and has the promise of allowing code warriors to develop anywhere they carry their phone.

If you would like more information on OPL then we have an old item on OPL development for the early Psion machines here (www.wirelessdevnet.com/channels/pda/training/epocopl1.html) much of which still applies to OPL development on the Nokia 9210. For a more current and in-depth look at the language you should check out Ewan’s OPL tutorials at All About Symbian (www.allaboutsymbian.com/develop/opl).




About the WDN Symbian Editor, Richard Bloor:
Richard Bloor is a freelance writer and editor with 18 years experience in the IT industry as a developer, analyst and latterly Project Manager with a particularly focus on software testing. Richard has been involved with the Symbian OS since 1995 and has been writing about it for the last 3 years.

Richard is also an associate with System Architecture consultancy Equinox of Wellington, New Zealand.

Richard can be reached at symbian@wirelessdevnet.com.

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