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Symbian pulls out of UI business, doesn't tell anybody

And nobody noticed. Well, apart from Nokia, probably...

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Did Symbian pull out of the UI business last year and not tell anybody? Strangely, although The Register has discussed UI-related issues with Symbian over the past 18 months or so, we've no recollection of Symbian mentioning the matter. Nor indeed does there seem to be anything that could even remotely imply this in the company's entire 2001 announcement archive.

But it must be true, because if you look here, you'll find Peter Bancroft of Symbian (NB eWeek, note spelling) happily claiming: "We got out of the whole user interface bit ourselves last year." Peter, seems to be MIA in the US at the moment, but did tell us back in July that Nokia's sales of its own Series 60 UI on Symbian ought to help rather than hinder Symbian's own revenues. Symbian's licence fee per OS, he said, is fixed at $5, and Symbian is going to get that whether licensees go for the Nokia UI or not. But he didn't say anything about Symbian pulling out of the business last year - must have slipped his mind.

That $5 ought however to be an issue. Symbian's original pitch, right at the launch of the company, was that the price for a smartphone licence should be $5, and keeping the tab at that level is therefore of vital importance to Symbian and its projections. But if you're a handset manufacturer buying your OS from Symbian and either developing your own UI or licensing it from Nokia or A N Other, then clearly your costs are going to be over $5 for software. Logic dictates that you ask for a discount (and as you may well be a shareholder in the company, you could surely get one with a little effort). We've heard several claims from sources within Symbian and handset manufacturers that the price has gone down, but these have always been strenuously denied by Symbian.

But there's another factor that potentially weakens Symbian's position - what if the underlying Symbian OS isn't necessary? Not all of Nokia's handsets run Symbian OS, and the company differentiates according to target market. The cheaper handsets don't use it, while the smartphones run Symbian with Series 60 on top. However, they apparently don't need Symbian for Series 60, and as we understand it at least some of Nokia's prototype machines are built without Series 60, and then Symbian is retro-fitted when they go into production.

So if Nokia wanted to (which it tells us it doesn't) it could put Series 60 onto an alternative OS instead. Maybe it could do it on Linux, given that it's done some work on Linux appliances anyway, or it could throw Microsoft a lifebelt (no, we don't know why it would want to do that either), or it could save itself some money by rolling out Series 60 further down its handset range without taking Symbian along as well. That last option looks the most plausible to us. More advanced capabilities are going to be deployed on cheaper handsets, and while you can maybe put up with $5 on the pricier ones, you're going to want to shave it off the low-rent varieties. And conceivably Nokia could even license a sans-Symbian implementation of Series 60 to other handset manufacturers - then it really would be the Microsoft of the mobile phone business. ®

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