Symbian's Myers on Microsoft, antitrust and those memos

Steering platforms

Over Jambalaya and Cajun ribs, Symbian's CEO Colly Myers talked to The Register about those Gates memos, staff-poaching, Intel's entry into the handset business, and keeping the noisy Symbian fraternity in harmony.

Symbian now has 700 employees in the US, mostly development staff transferred from the company's founding shareholders Motorola, Ericsson and Nokia. According to Myers, there are 20 Symbian products currently in development, counting localisations.

Not too much was forthcoming about the recently announced Sony's deal - Myers said that at the time of Palm's tie-up with Sony the Japanese company had committed only to using PalmOS in a PDA. The Symbian deal sees Sony produce Pearl-based smartphones on Symbian ER6.1, which is a work in progress.

Yet Symbian remains familiar only to the cognoscenti Stateside, with the poodle press devoting acres of print to the PDA category, a class of device which, even if it exists in three years, is likely to be a very little kettle of fish. Doesn't this bother him?

Not really, he reckons. Symbian will engage in some serious brand marketing, but not before the devices are ready, before Christmas. And a lot can happen in a few months. "Look at WAP. A year ago everyone said it was dead, but it continues. A year ago people said WAP was failing but now it's the most sought after brand in the world."

More of a political problem is ensuring that Symbian maintains visibility. Doesn't every dollar Nokia or Ericsson spends on promoting Symbian, rather than promoting Nokia or Ericsson, lessen their own brands?

Well, there's no advantage for them to that, he insists. Much like the Intel Inside program, the Symbian badge will be an assurance of interoperability. With Symbian branded devices buyers get some assurance that the software has been tested by all the shareholders, rather than just the vendor, he says.

But surely, we wondered, the attraction remains for a handset manufacturer to go for an unbranded, or even a non-Symbian platform if it means having some first mover advantage? Doesn't the handset only have to work with one network for a vertical closed platform to succeed?

"Only up to a point," reckons Myers. "If it's not reliable, if the transports don't work, if the air interfaces don't work, then it's not going to succeed in the market."

We've been intrigued by Intel's entry into the cellular handset business, thanks to the acquisition of TDMA and CDMA technology and the partnership with Mitsubishi to produce 3G wireless devices based on its StrongARM chips. Myers sees them as joining the likes of Texas Instruments and Qualcomm as one of the four main air interface chipset suppliers. (Symbian's shareholders develop their own air interfaces).

Myers was evidently tickled by the release of two Gates memos largely focussing on the Symbian threat, which the DoJ produced at the remedy hearing last week. Myers picked out the 'kill Symbian, kill Nokia' theme and in particular, if they get together with Sun it's a declaration of war.

We've seen most of the tactics described in the memos (from summers 98 and 99 respectively) enacted: find a browser, work with the Symbian shareholders individually to promote back-end software, and talk up NT embedded in PBXs, although the latter remains vapourware.

The most recent tactic is Microsoft's use of head-hunters to attempt to poach Symbian staff. Juha Christensen's marketing chief, was wooed recently, and Myers put the best gloss he could on this:

"Well obviously he knows a lot about our plans. We've put him on gardening leave for six months and say, well in six months our products will be on the market and the world will have moved on."

However Myers sounds pretty confident that the DoJ and US States will prevail in the antitrust case against Microsoft.

"The place capitalism works is best is America, it really works. And, equally, the Government has got it right in the way it regulates capitalism: nothing is going to get in their way. Microsoft can say it's going to leave the country, but it doesn't wash."

In Myers opinion, Microsoft probably deserved its success until the mid-nineties, but since then Windows hasnt delivered, not least in the reliability stakes.

Symbian can ward off antitrust investigations of its own because of the way the company is incorporated, he says:

"That was built into our company from day one. In fact, before day one, meaning that the day we launched we were in a potential monopoly situation with the EU. So we did certain things so that we wouldn't ever become a Microsoft. Being a monopoly isn't illegal, but leveraging it is - that's why we'll never become a Microsoft."

Although its not news, its probably worth mentioning that Symbian is keen to give licensees such as Sony the same access to the technology as the shareholders. And if thats considered freeloading, then too bad. Shareholders have the advantage of steering the platform, but no first mover advantage, says Myers. ®

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