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Nokia fights Microsoft by addressing Series 60 developer complaints

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Nokia and Sun are building defenses against Microsoft with new developer programs for Series60 and Java, aimed to expand the range of applications for the smartphone, especially in the enterprise. By the end of 2004, Nokia says it will have radically increased the appeal of its Series 40/60/90 development environments to a broad base of programmers, using Java and other languages.

In any showdown between Nokia’s operating systems and Windows Mobile, the vast developer and software base of the latter will always be its prime advantage. Now the Finnish giant aims to simplify developer access to its technologies in order to stimulate the creation of applications. It has introduced a new mobile scheme including ‘tiering’, which will give certain developers – which pay higher fees - earlier and more in-depth access to the System 40/60/90 development environments for Symbian OS and other Nokia systems.

It will support a wider range of languages on these platforms in order to make programming simpler and to fill gaps that Java leaves. But Java remains the dominant language, hence the cooperation with Sun.

Nokia has been active for the past two years in making its platforms more appealing to the 3m-strong base of Java programmers. It has been working with Sun since 2001 on various schemes to support and encourage these developers, and the latest move is to cooperate on improving the application programming interfaces within Nokia OSs. Sun, which has missed many chances in the server world to capitalize on its ownership of Java technology, sees the mobile world as a huge opportunity to push Java against Microsoft Windows, and one where it is starting in a far stronger position than on the PC platform.

Sun’s determination to make allies of the smartphone makers is further illustrated by its involvement in a new roll-out of centers where developers can get their applications certified for Symbian OS platforms not just from Nokia but also its rivals Sony Ericsson, Siemens and Motorola, with a single set of tests.

Moves to strengthen the appeal of Nokia platforms to developers cannot come soon enough for the Finnish company. Although Microsoft’s progress in the cellphone world has been slow, its operating system is starting to make limited inroads. Not enough to worry Nokia in the cellphone mainstream, but the danger lies in the enterprise market. Here, Visual.Net programs are well established and interoperate easily with software on other platforms; and as companies start to move from PDAs to smartphones as their mobile client of choice, they may find it a logical step to stick with the same environment.

Palm, of course, hopes to capitalize on this trend by adding smartphone capabilities to its systems; but Microsoft-based devices such as the HP iPaq are in an even stronger position once they start to introduce cellphone functionality. As Nokia pushes into the enterprise, it needs to establish its client platform among business-focused developers in order to take away the key advantage of the incumbent PDAs – an ambition that, of course, chimes in with Sun’s aim of chipping away at Windows with Java.

Nokia is drawing on the experience of Palm, whose PDAs are well established in the enterprise and which made its initial fortune based on the way that it opened up its (at the time) innovative platform to a broad developer community. The Finnish company has tapped a vice president of developer relations, Lee Epting, from Handspring (and before that, Palm), to help revamp its ability to attract a broad base of programmers as Series 60 – which has had impressive early take-up – starts to gain critical mass and become the dominant environment for high end handsets.

Epting admitted this week that Nokia’s developers have demanded a more varied range of options within Series 60, and that the company is responding to the main requests as quickly as possible. For instance, the company will offer support for Perl and Python scripting on Series 60, expanding the only two choices currently available – native Symbian C++ APIs, which are tough to master; or Java, which does not always allow access to native resources such as SMS. Support for features such as Perl opens up Series 60 to non-specialists or even non-technical people looking to create a very simple forms-based application, something that is a strength of Microsoft tools.

Last year, Nokia took its first step to making Series 60 more friendly to novices when it agreed to support Psion’s old language OPL, which is similar to Basic and has a loyal programmer base. Symbian open sourced the 20-year old language, though Epting concedes that it needs to gain some buy-in from various parts of Nokia. She seems to be facing a common challenge of executives charged with modernizing a well established platform – resistance or apathy from some parts of the company, and a consequent battle for profile and funding.

Other items that the Nokia developers’ community, Forum Nokia, has demanded, and which Epting aims to address in the coming months, include improved documenting of APIs; better integration and support for ‘smart downloading’; and the ability to support ‘DRM forward lock’, which allows the owner of an application to forward it in trial format to a friend. Nokia says that 1.3 million developers have downloaded software tools for its platforms, and that its new moves are based on a poll of their most common complaints. But it is not just responding to gripes – it is also seeking to convince non-Series 60 developers that it is creating an attractive and lucrative market for applications using the platform.

The enterprise push helps with this, by focusing on higher margin products than the typical consumer cellphone apps, which are often downloaded for a few dollars. Also important will be support for simpler distribution methods, particularly enabling business users to download complex Series 60 software more easily over the air. Epting says this is a priority for 2004 and Nokia hopes to build on some early consumer-oriented pilots in Asia, where apps can be downloaded from kiosks over Bluetooth or infrared links.

Microsoft is also expected to shake up its software programs this year to appeal to mobile developers. It has two objectives, to encourage Visual .Net programmers to support the mobile platforms, and to draw in non-Microsoft developers to its platform, an ambition that will be severely hampered by the lack of Java. The greater efforts that Sun and its handset friends make to simplify Java and the various frameworks that support it, the harder it will be for Microsoft to make any inroads into the consumer cellphone applications sector, even with the appeal of Visual .Net’s simplicity.

© Copyright 2004 Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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