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Symbian On the Rise

Open platform drives innovation

Symbian, Ltd. (www.symbian.com) was founded in 1998 by Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, and Psion, using Psion's EPOC OS as a starting point for its new system. David Wood, Symbian's executive vice president, explains that the aim of the founders was to create a standard operating system for advanced mobile phones. "It was getting harder and harder to use the existing proprietary operating systems to quickly and inexpensively come out with new technologies," he says.

By 1998, Wood says, it was already abundantly clear that operating systems of the time were being pushed to their limits. "Any given operating system is designed to cope with a certain amount of complexity," he says. "As more and more features are added in beyond the original voice capabilities, it becomes increasingly difficult to do that smoothly without having to do major surgery on the software system."

Key to the concept behind Symbian was the idea of an open platform, of encouraging developers to build software for Symbian phones in the same way that had driven the sales of PCs. "The idea was that third-party writers would create applications that could be guaranteed on all the phones produced for this operating system - regardless of which manufacturer had created it," Wood says.

As a company created by the major phone manufacturers, Symbian benefits greatly from those manufacturers' insights into what's needed in the phone market. "We've seen in practical terms where the operating system has needed a refinement in real phone projects," Wood says. "So it is uniquely suited for the needs of the phone market."

And, Wood suggests, that's what really makes Symbian unique: the fact that it was built from the start for mobile phones. "We don't have a heritage of desktops," he says. "We're not trying to put everything from a desktop into a phone. The most important application that's in a smartphone is the phone: we're not particularly addressing the 'combination' market of a device that happens to be a computer and a phone."

 

Consumer or Enterprise?

As a result, Symbian has often been perceived purely as a consumer play - but Wood is eager to dispel that image, particularly looking forward. "We think Symbian OS is very well suited to both enterprise and consumer markets," he says. "We have partnerships with many companies that are well positioned to take advantage of the connections into enterprise data, and you'll see more and more of this."

As an example, Wood points to the recent announcement of a commitment by IBM Global Services to act as a system integrator of Nokia's Mobile VPN software for Symbian OS. The Nokia VPN client enables users of Symbian phones to have secure mobile access to enterprise applications, potentially putting such phones in direct competition with devices like the Compaq iPAQ and the RIM BlackBerry.

The point is that Symbian offers far more adaptability than PDAs do. "If an IT department has a choice between buying a custom new Pocket PC for their staff to run some dedicated software on, or simply rolling out an application using Symbian OS on phones that their employees already have, then there's a strong incentive to use the Symbian OS solution there," Wood says.

Yankee Group (www.yankeegroup.com) analyst Sarah Kim adds that with advanced devices it's always difficult to make a clear distinction between consumer and enterprise users. "The consumers who are buying the high-end devices are the very tech-savvy early adopters who are inevitably mobile professional types," she says. "So that line is not particularly easy to draw in market terms."

If professionals have already bought Symbian phones for their own use, and offerings like Nokia's Mobile VPN are available to connect them to enterprise data, it certainly makes sense for companies to consider enabling access through the phones their employees already have. But for now, Kim points out, it's just too early to tell. "It's still very early on in the game," she says. "I know we say that every year, but it's true."

 

An Exacting Design

"From a technical standpoint," Wood says, "Symbian offers a number of key advantages. Prominent among those is power management. That's been critical from the heritage of Psion days, with mobile devices that people carried around with them and expected to last for months," he says. "It's still visible in the software systems that we see now, with long battery life."

In order to ensure that memory safety and power management are optimized, Symbian can place some unique demands on developers. "Some developers, when they use Symbian OS for the first time, are taken aback by the mindset of programming that they realize they need to adopt," Wood says. "There are many more test harnesses to deal with."

That may require more work, but Wood says it pays off in terms of robustness. "We've had occasions where people have ported over software to Symbian OS from other operating systems, and it has fallen afoul of our built-in checks," he says. "They've concluded that their software is leaking memory on every other implementation they have, on Windows and so forth, but it's never been caught before."

Ultimately, Wood says, most developers acquire a great appreciation of the system's design. "We used a lot of features of C++ in an exacting way," he says. "As a result, we have a design which is future-proof, scalable, and extensible - and this is often what drives companies to choose Symbian OS. The architecture has led a lot of support to us."

Finally, Wood says the open architecture is already encouraging a lot of innovation among developers. "We often get pleasantly surprised at what third parties do," he says. "For camera phones, for example, third parties are able to write add-ons that build on the functionality of the camera itself. It's gone much faster than many of us expected: it's really the power of the open platform driving the innovation."

 

Follow the Leader

Peter Bancroft, Symbian's vice president of communications, offers one example of such innovation: the Finnish company Hantro (www.hantro.com), which developed video functionality for Symbian camera phones, was able to license it quickly to Nokia. "The open platform allows developers to gain access to a large market very quickly, even on their first implementation of a particular technology," Bancroft says.

D'Arcy Salzmann, wireless marketing manager for the development tools company Metrowerks (www.metrowerks.com), says that access to manufacturers like Nokia is a key selling point for developers. "Most developers are in this for commercial gain," he says. "So the biggest concern from a developer's perspective is, are people buying the platform for which you want to sell a product?"

With Nokia planning to ship more than 10 million Symbian phones in the next year alone, Salzmann says, it makes a lot of sense for developers to write for the platform. "In 12 months, Symbian will have done what Palm did in five years," he says. "So for a developer deciding which OS to focus their energy on, Symbian represents a really strong growth opportunity."

What's more, Salzmann says, the most exciting work is being done on Symbian phones. "Having merged a camera with the device, Nokia and Sony Ericsson have hit on a really interesting market," he says. "You can spend $200, get a really cool phone that has Web browsing and, by the way, has a camera in it. And they've seen fantastic results: the Nokia 7650 has outsold their expectations."

Jean-Pierre LeBlanc, senior director of RAD development at the development tools company Borland (www.borland.com), points out that the same principles are true for tool vendors. "As a tool vendor, you want to make sure that you're building a tool to support the platform that's going to be ubiquitous in the marketplace, because that's the one from which your developers stand to make the most money," he says.

 

Nokia's Contribution

Another key driver behind Symbian's success is the user interface that Nokia has built for the Symbian OS, called Series 60. Wood is quick to stress that Series 60 is one of many user interface layers for Symbian, but it's by far the most prominent. Other interfaces, such as UIQ Technologies' pen-based UIQ interface, which is being used on the Sony Ericsson P800, allow manufacturers the flexibility to decide what they think users need.

With Series 60 already licensed by such manufacturers as Samsung, Panasonic, and Siemens, The Yankee Group's Kim contends that Nokia's user interface is far more important to Symbian than they'll ever admit. "Their fate is very closely aligned with the fate of Series 60 and Nokia," she says. "It's a very important user interface, and one that can make or break them."

Borland's LeBlanc points out that Series 60 makes it easier for other manufacturers to make use of Symbian without having to develop their own user interface. "By joining the Series 60 program, they've reduced their R&D burden on that side - which allows them to spend more time differentiating on the hardware features of the phone, or on applications to be delivered with the phone," he says.

The more time and money that can be spent on applications, LeBlanc says, the better for everyone involved. "If a platform is to be successful, you have to control the developers and empower them to build applications," he says. "Once you do that, then your platform is empowered, and you can become successful in proliferating that platform in the marketplace."

Metrowerks' Salzmann says Series 60's flexibility should only encourage innovation. "Nokia is using Series 60 as a push to open standards in the mobile world," he says. "They have two Series 60 devices announced, and one shipping, that are all very different. They're proving that even if you buy a user interface package from Nokia, you can create dramatically different devices. That's good for the market."

 

Looking Ahead

It has taken a while for Symbian-based phones to come to market, but Wood says there's now a huge momentum behind the OS. "We've seen products from four licensees, and we're engaging in another 18 projects with another seven," he says. "It's like an iceberg: there's a visible part, but beneath that, there's a tremendous commitment from all major phone players to bring out phones based on Symbian OS."

Ultimately, Borland's LeBlanc says, the backing of the leading phone manufacturers is the key driver behind Symbian's success. "That's when you can be the most successful - when you've got the number one as your customer, and they're giving you guidance on what to build and when to build it," he says. "In terms of operating systems for mobile devices, Symbian is really at the head of the class."

Wood suggests that the first change to expect in the near future is that the Symbian operating system will start to appear in a far wider range of phones. "The initial phones that have come out are visibly high-end, but they're already selling at pretty low prices," he says. "Over time, you'll see Symbian OS used increasingly in mid-range phones."

In a larger sense, Symbian's Bancroft adds, our conception of the phone is going to change. "It's going to broaden beyond its core voice functionality into a huge range of differentiated products that will meet the needs of different market groups," he says. "The Nokia N-Gage gaming console is just one example of how the phone will morph into a range of different markets."

Taking advantage of Symbian's flexibility, Bancroft envisions a vast expansion of the market. "It's much like the car industry: the Model T was the only car on the market until someone else created a new type of car," he says. "I don't suppose Henry Ford would have thought of SUVs and trucks and BMWs and Chevrolets, but that's the direction the market's going to take - and Symbian OS is ideally designed to meet the needs of all those different market segments."

More Stories By Jeff Goldman

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer specializing in business and technology issues. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago, and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.

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