Nokia takes charge at Symbian
Reference Designs head for early bath
Decoding mobile telecoms announcements has often required the skills of a Kremlinologist: working out who's up and who's down from dress details in the annual Politburo photograph.
During negotiations to set the 3G standard a few years ago, the warring parties fired long-range press releases at each other, indicated shifting loyalties with the most arcane announcements about voltages.
We'd barely finished parsing Nokia's Comdex announcements when we noticed that Symbian has a new-look mission statement, the first change to the text since mid-1998 when the company was founded. It isn't a ground-up rewrite, but it is subtly different, and provides a context for the platform pitch Nokia's CEO Jorma Ollila made at Comdex and re-emphasised in Barcelona this week.
Fishing the old Symbian mission statement out of Google's cache shows what's changed. Gone is the primary mission "to set the standard for mobile wireless operating systems". Gone too is the "Evangelizing standards" promise.
In its place, the new mission statement begins: "Symbian is a software licensing company, owned by wireless industry leaders, that is the trusted supplier of the advanced, open, standard operating system - Symbian OS - for data-enabled mobile phones."
Which is a lot clearer, at least. References to "wireless information devices" have been replaced by "phones", so everybody knows what they're talking about. This is significant when Wintel's idea of a wireless information device is something running a flavour of 802.11 wireless Ethernet.
But companies don't usually change their mission statements unless there's an accompanying strategy shift, do they?
"The mission hasn't changed," Symbian's communications chief Paul Cockerton tells us. "Nokia is working very hard to attract developers to the Symbian platform, and we're going after licensees and technology partners too: with the networks such as Vodafone and Orange."
But isn't Nokia now performing much of the evangelising role that dropped out of Symbian's mission statement this week?
"Nokia are a very prominent brand," says Cockerton. Symbian has no bones to pick with its shareholders if the message is "appropriate". Symbian was and is in the OS business, so there's no change there.
While Nokia, Matsuishita, Sony-Ericsson, Motorola and Psion have roughly equal stakes, the Finns are leading from the front:
"Nokia has definitely taken charge," says Nomura analyst Keith Woolcock. "They'll take Symbian and run with it."
Which makes sense, he figures. "If you look at the industry now, only Nokia is making profits - it's the ubermensch."
With Symbian still collecting $5 for every phone, it's probably not going to mind too much about Nokia taking the credit. However the Finnish company's increased profile is bound to increase tensions with the other Symbian shareholders, thinks Canalys analyst Chris Jones.
"Nokia is flexing its muscles. There's no doubting its commitment to Symbian, but the question is its involvement as a level pegging shareholder with the other co-founders. The others may do something themselves or pull back their involvement."
Psion CEO David Levin last week rated the prospect of Psion selling its stake as likely - but for financial, rather than political reasons.
Last week's platform initiative by Nokia - with the backing of 20 carriers and handset rivals it will license the source code to everything except the air interfaces from the base OS North - was a momentous announcement, reckons Woolcock.
"You can license the air interfaces from Motorola or Ericsson or others, and the middleware and UI from Nokia. Add in an OS of your own or Symbian, and you have everything you need to make an advanced Nokia smartphone."
Ah, the UI. In Barcelona this week at the launch of the Nokia 7650 phone, Nokia referred to the Series 60 user interface. The 7650 is a Symbian Pearl phone, but Pearl was always "headless" in terms of leaving the UI to licensees, says Cockerton - so don't read too much into that.
However, things seem to be moving on from the three family reference designs, or DFRDs (Device Family Reference Designs), which have been canned. Sources at one Symbian licensee tell us that the company's as-yet unannounced smartphone follows neither the Crystal, Quartz or Pearl designs, although it's very much based around the core Symbian OS.
Licensees prefer dining a la carte, rather than paying for a set menu.
Cockerton says the DFRDs are still current, but our money is on this line being one of these things that doesn't change, until it does. A bit like a mission statement.
You'll notice we haven't mentioned The Beast yet. That's part of the bigger picture which we'll follow-up with in a sequel. Coming soon. ®