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Inside Symbian's Crystal communicator

Intel XScale, Nokia, Psion - it's all here

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Bridging the IT gap between rising business demands and ageing tools

Symbian's Crystal platform made its public debut at the Symbian Developer Forum in London this week. As it's the basis for Nokia's successor to its 9000 range, to be unveiled later this month, and the likely successor to both of Psion's Series 5 and Series 7 ranges we thought it worth reporting what we saw in some detail.

First a caveat. These notes are based on the Crystal SDKs (C++ and Java) given away at the Conference this week, which include a PC Crystal emulator. Because licensees are free to customise this base platform as they wish, final Crystal implementations won't necessarily be identical to what's already on show. The base package contains some deliberate omissions, such as the Telephone application itself, that Symbian leaves entirely to OEMs. And of course, since this is a software platform, it doesn't give any clues at all as to what the finished hardware will look like.

On the other hand, what we'll see from Nokia, Psion and the other licensees won't necessarily be too radically different either, and as was the case with the first Quartz demos, there are a mass of substantial strategic clues here about real products hitting the market over the next twelve months.

The base Communicator spec is for a keyboard based device with a 640x200 screen. Symbian positions it as a device more suitable for data entry than the Quartz palm platform. Quartz borrows PalmOS prime usability features - persistent applications, and hiding the file system - and doesn't include a base file manager, although third party ISVs will undoubtedly add this.

But most radically for Psion users, we expect, the major change will be the System screen. The default desktop is an evolution of the "Today" view on Psion's Revo and 5MX. You get status information on the left, and three context buttons on the right - we say buttons, but Crystal has default placeholder text there for now - and a curious, horizontally scrolling workspace in the centre that reminds us of the conveyor belt from The Generation Game. Those three buttons are the first clue that Nokia led the design initiative for Crystal, as it closely follows the design of the existing 9000 Communicator. Another clue is that Crystal doesn't include default pen support - that's for the OEM to add, or not as the case may be. Psion users are familiar with pen input, Nokia Communicator users aren't.

The "Desktop" (the new name for Psion's System option) not only defaults to a Today view, but actually is the Today view: Crystal calls on a discrete File Manager application to perform housekeeping.

Task switching has moved from ER5's application identifier box in the top right corner (that's gone altogether) to the pull down menu. Since this menu isn't visible, and must be explicitly invoked by the Menu key or off-screen button, this is a move that favours penless Crystal machines. Even more curiously the File Manager lives in the "Office" group by default: as with the Psion Series 3, the keyboard application shortcuts can invoke program groups rather than single apps. You'll find Word, Sheet, and a PowerPoint Viewer in the default Crystal Office group. Crystal has on board converters for the Microsoft Office apps.

Of course whether this arrangement makes it through to shipping product, we'll have to see. Psion programming veterans will be cheered that OPL remains part of the base package.

On the software side the long-promised data integration is obvious from the Send As menu. Symbian ER5 machines already have an integrated contacts store, that makes takes you into the straight into the appropriate contact field (such as mobile phone number, or email address) depending on the type of message being sent. This menu pretty much removes the need to think about what kind of transport the is being used (SMS, Fax, Email, IR, Bluetooth) before you start typing the message. Which is pretty neat.

Finally, we noticed from the presentation by Symbian product manager Sander Siezen that Crystal will be extended to include larger screen sizes and different input methods. So it looks like the sub-notebook segment is the next stop for this platform - leading to some interesting competition between big-Crystals based on Intel's XScale and Transmeta Crusoes...

The launch of the first Crystal communicator will take place in Prague in three weeks, at Nokia's Mobile Internet show.

So Symbian licensees are lining up like this:- Sony has bought into the Pearl platform, the mass market smartphone coming in late 2002. Sanyo, Motorola, Psion and Ericsson have already committed to the Palm style phone. And Nokia will launch with Crystal. That leaves Symbian shareholder Matsushita, but since Panasonic is a major consumer brand we'll not very adventurously place a bet that this will be an MP3 player based on Quartz. ®

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