Hewlett Packard eyes smartphone biz

Sssh... don't tell Bill

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There's an eye-catching name in an otherwise content-free press release from Symbian today: Hewlett Packard. HP makes its first appearance as a "Premium Partner" for the smartphone OS provider.

Peter Bancroft, VP of communications at Symbian, told us that he couldn't comment on the specific relationship, but said this was indicative of a broadening range of interest in Symbian, whose licensees are phone companies. HP isn't a licensee - so it may be premature to look for an HP communicator just yet. But it definitely seems to be casing the joint.

Which is sweet, as it's only six months since we teased HP's CTO Shane Robinson and its head of labs Dick Lampman (scroll down to the section: "America - Phone Home") about why HP couldn't produce a communicator. HP has a $4 billion annual R&D budget; and with its CoolTown project it's been doing all the right kind of work on practical uses for pervasive, mobile IP technology. However the roadmap remains PDA-centric and firmly loyal to Windows CE.

Now this isn’t exactly optimal. Mobile devices need to be mobile, above all else, and built-from the ground-up. If you are designing a microlight, you wouldn't start with an SUV and strap on rotors and wings. This reflects HP's current approach of taking a CE PDA and strapping on all kinds of sleeves and sleds, and hoping it will be mistaken for an integrated communicator. Let's be honest: the CE codebase wasn't designed to airborne.

But great opportunities exist. The next few years should be pretty interesting, as companies fling various form factors at the market to see what might stick. The phone companies won't just be making phones: Nokia's NGage gaming platform that's due next year is a console which happens to have a Symbian Series 60 phone built-in. From a distance, you'd call it a console, not a communicator. So for the traditional computer companies, it could be a case of eat lunch, or be lunch.

Hidden in plain sight

Dare we suggest that the biggest problem isn't technical - HP is still a world-class engineering company - but political.

The reluctance of Windows licensees to adopt non-Microsoft handheld platforms isn't remarked on very often. This can only be because it's so it's so obvious, it's hidden in plain sight. How many can you count?

If you look at the list of SymbianOS shareholders and licensees - Sony, Nokia, Matsushita (aka Panasonic), Ericsson, Motorola, Siemens, Samsung and Psion - only two are significant Windows licensees. Sony has stuff that Microsoft needs, and is the only Windows licensee to make significant running with PalmOS PDAs. While Siemens is a grand old industrial combine in which the PC division is related to the phone division in all but name.

So if HP dares take the plunge with (inaudible), it could be the first real test of how effective the Compliance Committee really is. ®

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