MS Mobile Explorer will lose wireless war – Symbian CEO

Microsoft espouses thin client at wrong time, apparently...

By some bizarre coincidence (?) Microsoft wireless spinning seemed to go into overdrive on the morning of the Symbian Developer Expo in London today. The WSJ said that according to Microsoft executives, Symbian has lost two thirds of its 40 most senior staff this year, and Microsoft VP mobile devices Ben Waldman weeps: "The disappointment they [the licensees] have expressed to us is almost heart-rending."

We furnished Symbian corporate communications manager Hanna Sigge with the text of the piece (via an EPOC device, as it happens), and she very sportingly retorted that her heart was "torn in two" at Waldman's own troubles. And one really can't help musing that, if high volume exec departure is an issue, then on the past year's record Windows must be doomed.

Waldman's attempt to spread rumours of a licensee revolt are if anything slightly more implausible than his heart almost being rent, but although Symbian holds most of the cards when it comes to real, live deals that will result in real, live, product, its spinning has been less than proactive, and in this department Microsoft outclasses the company. Faced with a barrage of questions from the press looking for dope on an IPO delay, CEO Colly Myers will maybe have figured this out (for the record, it looks to us more like 2002 than 2001, but there was no formal committment in the first place).

Myers does however exude the characteristic confidence of a veteran of Psion, which is a company that has been right, in the face of the odds, for a decade and a half. Microsoft will not be able to rule the Web by moving the goalposts - on the contrary, it will buckle in the face of customer demand: "No particular company is going to wrestle away the standard," says Myers. They might achieve a de facto standard for a while, but he cites "Mr Ballmer giving access to Palm onto their networks." Faced with Palm's customer base, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer has conceded the point, and "whoever has the customers, they [Microsoft] will support."

Myers has been around long enough to know that initial support from Microsoft frequently turns out to be the first stop on the 'embrace, extend, extinguish' roller-coaster ride. But on further investigation it turns out that his confidence is based on a belief that Microsoft's model is wrong, and of limited shelf life. If that's the case, then it will be the wrong thing that gets extended.

Myers turns out to be an unlikely supporter of that old Microsoft totem, distributed computing, while Microsoft - as far as the wireless business is concerned - is on the side of thin client computing. This is superficially bizarre, but as Myers explains it, plausible.

Symbian's platform is a ground-up integrated system based on the premise that it has to get the junction between computing and wireless comms dead right. On top of that you've got a scalable UI/environment, and a collection of applications. It's sort of Windows, really, by other means, designed from other premises. It's had seven years of development, and it's pretty battle-ready, but it boils down to what Myers calls an "advanced client" - it's got local processing power, and it presumes you're going to want to do things locally. We did note that Myers is now placing emphasis on the more advanced, smarter Symbian devices, rather than the dumber higher volume ones, but that's a nuance only barely detectable to those who were at the original Symbian announcement.

Microsoft, on the other hand, clearly does not have tight integration between the phone and the computing platform. On the contrary, although it has waggled Stinger demo units at people, quite a lot of its hopes seem to be pinned on deals like the Ericsson one, where Microsoft Mobile Explorer will sit on top of a relatively standard mobile phone OS (but NB Ben Waldman - remember Ericsson mused it might well put Mobile Explorer onto EPOC).

That looks like a plausible short-cut. Mobile Explorer becomes the standard mobile Web UI, echoing Internet Explorer's progression, and it can be run on top of the systems the handset manufacturers use already - these are actually quite good, economical, and efficient.

Myers seems to accept this as a viable plan in the short term, but beyond that reckons it won't work, and that it'll even be helpful to Symbian by boosting mobile Web development. "It'll divert PC industry attention on content towards mobile phones. With Mobile Explorer they can take a thin client approach to the market and be successful," but Microsoft will depend on the services it can offer at the server end to retain control of the microbrowser (so he has heard about embrace, etc...).

Myers sees logical consequences to this process. As more and more phone users with thin clients hit the servers with increasingly personalised processing requests, everything slows up, and it becomes apparent that what you actually need is distributed computing power: "The second wave needs advanced clients capable of running and processing data locally."

So that cheap, dumb, comms-aware appliance you were looking forward to actually turns out to be a comparatively fat client, compared to the thinner layer constructed by Redmond, home of bloat. Weird or what? ®

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