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Symbian looks to enterprise to drive smartphone biz

On the floor at Exposium '03

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A greater focus on enterprise customers and a stronger commitment to the establishment of the smartphone as a platform are today the two main forces driving mobile phone makers. Certainly they are the key trends emerging from this year's Symbian developers' bash, Exposium '03.

The event also saw Symbian unveil version 7.0S - 'S' for 'special, since you ask - rolling in new and updated features aimed at promoting the operating system as the best foundation for smartphones.

The major vendors, including Nokia, Siemens and Sony Ericsson, reiterated their commitment to the Symbian OS at the show, along with their plans to drive the technology into a much broader range of handsets, from the mid-range to the high-end.

And it's all based on turning the smartphone into a platform rather than a product per se. The logic isn't hard to perceive. Mobile phone companies need to sell more handsets, and that means adding more and more features, to meet "growing expectations for richer experience", as Sony Ericsson Senior VP Rikko Sakaguchi puts it. That's particularly important now the balance in the market has shifted to upgrade sales rather than new handsets.

At the same time, the cost of developing a new handset is rising while the volume of sales falls. To strike a balance between these trends, Nokia and co. are looking to the Symbian-based smartphone.

Creating a platform allows them to use that as the basis for a wide array of products, targeting different kinds of user, more cheaply. Once the platform's there, most of the development work - and the cost - has been covered. It also allows more room for operator customisation, said Peter Zapf, President of Siemens Mobile Phones.

A common platform also allows third-parties to offer extra functionality through applications and utilities, boosting each handset's feature-set through a mix of bundled apps and after-market products purchased by users.

Enter the enterprise angle, which involves touting smartphones as networkable devices capable of interfacing with back-office applications. That's the same pitch PDA manufacturers like Palm and HP make, as do more application-specific device suppliers like RIM. The phone vendors are now able to say they too have a platform that delivers the IT department-friendly programmability of the PDA combined with access via a much broader network. Oh, and it's a phone too.

Symbian is carving itself a broader role than OS developer in the process. At Exposium it announced the formation of the Symbian Enterprise Advisory Council (SEAC), pulling in enterprise software vendors like IBM, Oracle, Adobe and others to help figure out how Symbian-based devices can more easily be integrated into enterprise IT - which basically means tackling security and device management issues - and to build partnerships with said vendors and mobile phone makers and operators.

It also announced its Companion Technology Programme at Exposium - a scheme to validate third-party software offerings to provide licensees and mobile phone operators with a library of quality apps that are ready to be licensed and bundled with their own products.

Symbian's decision to release its Open Programming Language (OPL), one of the hidden treasures of the old Psion devices, as an open source offering under LGPL is undoubtedly driven by the need to make it easier for corporates to create apps for the platform. OPL only runs on Symbian 6.1, but since that's the version Nokia is currently using, that may not matter too much. Nokia's Series 60 UI, is used by Panasonic, Samsung, Sendo and Siemens, as well as Nokia, so it accounts for most of the Symbian smartphones out there. Nokia says it plans to switch to Symbian 7.0S in the second half of the year. Indeed, the upgrade from 7.0 to 7.0S seems to have been driven by a need to meet Nokia's needs rather than anyone else's.

Of course, establishing a platform is also about building a user base. Symbian CEO David Levin announced that some 1.18 million Symbian-based phones shipped in Q1 2003, up from the two million-odd shipped in 2002 as a whole and 147,000 in Q1 2002. At the end of March, he said, Symbian's ten licensees were working on 21 Symbian OS devices, 17 of them not yet announced in public. The others include Nokia's N-Gage, Siemens' SX1 and Samsung's SGH-D700.

Without this - and a rich community of third-party developers - smartphones would remain a niche product, Levin warned. Symbian's pitch is that only it can offer a sufficiently open environment to encourage the right mix of compatibility between systems and scope for differentiation needed to catalyse product development and thus sales.

Microsoft's recent move to allows Windows CE licensees to modify the OS' source code and ship products containing those modifications may be encouraging loyalties to waver. Fortunately for Symbian, it's not extending this flexibility to the PocketPC platform, at least for the time being.

One of PocketPC's advantages is a consistent user interface across devices. Symbian's decision to leave phone UI design to those who understand it best, its licensees, may leave it weak here, but with Sony Ericsson and Nokia committed to making it easier to port apps between their respective UIs, QUI and Series 60, what few barriers the Symbian OS puts in front of developers are coming down.

Nokia's adoption of Symbian 7.0S later this year should help too. The upgrade provides a Quality of Service framework for phone connections, and supports "multiple PDP contexts", which translates into multiple connections, each with its own QoS criteria. WCDMA support is now available too.

Symbian has also added Java 2 Mobile Edition MIDP 2.0 to expand the functionality Java apps are able to offer, including access to Bluetooth and the OS' messaging facilities. Support for the latest JVM improves performance too.

Symbian has rewritten its old Multimedia Server code to provide an extensible multi-threaded engine now called the Multimedia Framework. The OS also supports Arabic and Hebrew languages.

All of which should help speed licensees moves to broaden their Symbian-based product lines. Sony Ericsson's Sakaguchi said he plans to expand his company's Symbian prod line - "We'll be even more successful if we go in this direction," he said. Siemens' Zapf made similar claims, talking about spreading Symbian through all devices, down to the low end. Each will offer "different performance, different elements" but will be based on the same core technology. He likened the situation to the car industry - the same chassis can be used to create trucks and SUVs, targeting two very different markets.

But there's no hurry. The general feeling around Exposium 03 from the big players is that this is going to take two more years at least. "Next year we'll see the outcome," said Sakaguchi. "And in two years we'll see proof of what we talk this morning."

Siemens' figures, culled from the likes of IDC, Gartner and Forrester, show that smartphones won't be mainstream - ie. with a market share of over ten per cent - until 2005.

Even Symbian officials see today's task being more out laying groundwork for a future market than about pushing into the mainstream ASAP.

So Microsoft, Palm and co. still have some time to catch. ®

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