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Nokia on Linux, Symbian and NGage

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3GSM Nokia senior VP Niklaus Savander submitted himself to a Register grilling this morning. Vendors have been making these interviews increasingly difficult for us at 3GSM by refusing to make the kind of grandiose statements that have characterized past mobile phone shows. It's all very subdued, because as one component vendor said to us, "No one wants another WAP."

Probably the most flamboyant and talked-about was Motorola's Linux/Java initiative, so we figured we'd start there. Originally announced last week, Moto said it will base all of its low-end and mid-range phones on the combination of the open source OS and Java. What did Nokia think of this?

"We're delighted that Motorola endorses Java," said Savander. "We agree the value is not the OS but the middleware. The OS is not the swing factor - it's an important enabler and our own R&D has very strong opinions.

"Their decision to base the OS on Linux is an engineering decision. They believe they can produce better phones faster and cheaper," he said. "Well, let's line them up and see who's better."

Nokia had it's own trusted NOS at the low end - barely an operating system by the text book definition, but trusted enough to power Nokia's 2G phones for several years - and Symbian now at the high-end, and planned by Nokia to move into mid tier phones.

"Moving Symbian into the midrange is a natural and logical trend."

So how was the relationship these days? Nokia has far more engineers working on the Symbian platform than Symbian itself - and Microsoft has charged that the consortium is little more than a front organization for Nokia, which tickled Savander.

"We have four licensees [of Series 60] who think our investment in Symbian is a good thing. Symbian creates a basic OS - it's a fraction of the software you need to implement a good phone. In fact I sympathize with [Symbian CEO] David Levin who says that Symbian would be a failure if Symbian employed all the Symbian developers," he added. "It's the same with Microsoft - most of the C++ Windows developers don't work for Microsoft."

"Symbian governance is such that such that nobody can jerk around. That governance has held true through many situations."

Savander was naturally chuffed at the adoption of Series 60, and expects to sell 10 million of Nokia's own phones based on the platform this year.

"To get from 40 per cent share to 45 per cent, you need to put three companies out of business. But when the whole market grows, your volumes grow too," he said.

CDMA

Nokia has recently announced an aggressive intention to start producing CDMA chipsets, at about the same time, ironically enough, that it withdrew from the Korean CDMA business - the only significant CDMA market outside the US. Was Nokia going to attempt to provide an alternative to the Qualcomm monoculture?

No, it would be its own customer, first:

"We want to design functionality for our own CDMA phones. It wouldn't be in our interest to be dependent on a monopoly." The chipset work has been underway for 18 months, he said.

Savander said it was "impossible to gauge" the effect on the market when Qualcomm's patents begin to expire, as the first and most important will in about four years. (Patents have a 17-year lifespan in the United States).

Consolation prize

Nokia's VP of communications Kari Tuutti vigorously defended the N-Gage business model, which has been criticized for not giving the carriers enough opportunity to earn a slice of the action.

"We see the carriers as critical, " he told us. They would still be able to sell games and select the bundle, be involved in settin gup the services for the games, and they get the airtimes," he told us. "N-Gage offers more ARPU potential than current phones".

And what about the latencies in GPRS that would stifle over-the-air multiplayer gaming? At 300ms, this is a long, long way off an acceptable Quake ping.

"You need low latencies for boxing games, but you don't need low latencies for everything," said Savander. "And latencies will improve."

For now, there's always Chess. Given a move every ten minutes, you could get by on latencies of 600,000 milliseconds we reckon. (And no, we didn't mention Chess).

Savander said that Nokia has shipped 10,000 units of its 3G phone to carriers and competitors. It expects to introduce the model, the 6650, at the same price as today's high end feature phones.

One feature of the show has been handset vendors prostrating themselves before the carriers, each one claiming to offer more "customizability" than their rivals. This was a surprise - three years ago the handset vendors ruled the roost, and carriers got what they were given.

But with carriers each going off and being tempted to add proprietary extensions, didn't this torpedo's Nokia's claim for open standards? WAP was notoriously inconsistent in this respect - with no two gateways acting alike.

" We've been on the barricades on this one", said Savander. "But even in the US it's becoming more standards based," he said, citing the declining interest in iMode and increasing interest in XHTML as an example.

"The risk is there but it is up to the industry leaders to be the flag bearer for non-fragmentation, that's our role."

Savander even said nice things about our friends Lawsuits In Motion, who are also here at Cannes, of course. Nokia recently licensed RIM's server side software, he said, simply because it wanted to sell new phones into enterprises with "legacy" systems.

"We have IBM and Oracle support, and aren't going to dictate. There will always be a legacy system. RIM has attracted a followership in the US."

A legacy already? Ouch. ®

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