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Symbian takes charge at Symbian

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3GSM Symbian will remain in the user interface business, despite giving every indication over the past 20 months that user interfaces weren't really what it was all about. Last autumn Symbian confirmed that it had in fact ceased developing UIs business in 2001. (See Symbian pulls out of UI business, doesn't tell anybody

With the Sony-Ericsson P800 the runaway hit of the 3GSM show and the most-talked about phone on Slashdot for much of the past year, what seemed like a disposable appendage two years ago now looks like a very strategic asset indeed. Because with the UI comes a vital degree of control over the developer APIs.

Two years ago Symbian was hawking the former Ericsson lab at Ronneby, where UIQ was created, to potential buyers. (The company still hotly denies this). At the time Symbian had three UIs: the penless Pearl, the keyboard-based Crystal and the pen-input Quartz. UIQ is both the old Quartz plus a new slimmer 208-pixel wide "Thin Quartz".

But a subtle change in Symbian's mission statement that we spotted in November 2001 (see Nokia takes charge at Symbian ) seemed to pave the way for the licensees themselves to define the UI. This Nokia did with the Pearl, now called Series 60, which it successfully licensed to several competitors; and Crystal, which it renamed Series 80. Motorola and Sony-Ericsson have both based phones on UIQ and a spin-off looked imminent last autumn (see GUI wars return: Motorola, Sony Ericsson tie-up.

That's off the table, we understand. It counters the charge we hear from Microsoft that Symbian is nothing more than a Nokia front operation these days, and more vitally, gives Symbian something to sell. "What if the underlying Symbian OS isn't necessary?" we asked last year. "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."

At a press conference here yesterday, Sony-Ericsson announced that AppForge's cross-platform run-time environment would be available on UIQ, with general availability next month. This allows Visual Basic and PalmOS programs to run natively, and AppForge claims 7,000 applications have been written. The few we saw on a P800 seemed to run just fine.

Sony-Ericsson also said it would be "aligning" technologies to make it easier for developers to target the penless Series 60 and the pen UIQ. What this means, developer program manager Ulf Wretling told us later, is that users could create Series 60 and UIQ build targets from CodeWarrior. Which they can't already?

Which leaves the puzzle - who else will license UIQ, for if P800 turns out to be the expected hit, rivals are unlikely to concede the pen smartphone market to Sony-Ericsson. Nokia is firmly of the belief that a two -handed phone means a keyboard. Motorola isn't interested, and its Paragon phone looks like a contractual obligation album. How about Handspring? ®

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