Psion looks past Windows to Linux
More to life than phones
Ignore the comments about the value of Psion shares: concentrate on what Psion is going to do with all the money it got from selling its interest in Symbian. The answer is probably: "Linux portables" but we'll find out later this year for sure.
The problem with Symbian, for Psion, is very simple: wireless. Too much of it.
Symbian is the property of Nokia - and (to a lesser extent) three other phone makers, Panasonic, Siemens, and Sony Ericsson - and Psion thinks there's more to life than phones.
Exactly how much more, is something for which there are only clues right now. But the clues are pretty clear. First, we know what Psion Teklogix is actually doing already. And second, we know what Psion founder, Dr David Potter, is enthusiastic about.
"We weren't in control of Symbian," Potter told me. "But it is true in business, you have to focus; and Symbian's focus was wireless. We didn't control Symbian: we had a major stake, we had been powerful in directing the conduct of the company." The question is, where would Psion want Symbian to go in future?
Look at Teklogix. It makes a portable notebook PC. Nobody actually seems capable of believing it; but this PC runs Windows, not EPOC. EPOC, famously explained as "Eat Plenty Of Carrots" (with a straight face!) by Potter when it was first launched on the Series 5 hand-held, was a real-time OS which gave rise to Symbian. Has Potter given up on Symbian? Not at all! - he has a huge stake in its success.
But he has given up on taking it into computing. And instead, he's dreaming of Linux.
This isn't a secret. The hint is hidden in plain sight in today's official statement: "Future strategy: Broadening markets using existing products," it says.
And it goes on: "Psion Teklogix can leverage its global sales and support capability to expand into complementary markets such as field service and the mobile professional worker segment. The Netbook Pro with Windows CE, aimed at corporate users, was launched last August, and many units have been shipped for pilot trials from which feedback is encouraging. Additionally, there are positive results from a viability study of Netbook with Linux for professional users with specialist applications."
Potter: "We have some interesting developments and projects, which have filled out in terms of the research we've been doing. We believe there is an opportunity there! - we see it as going way beyond Microsoft, being much wider than that. We see Linux as being very interesting, not only in terms of technology, but also in market dynamics; lots of companies want to move in that sort of area when they buy equipment these days."
The key to Psion's involvement in Windows CE, is simply that it's a much more compact, responsive, and more mobile environment than Windows XP. And Linux, they think, is even more so. The irony, of course, is that when Motorola pulled out of Symbian late last year one of the reasons it gave was its desire to launch a Linux phone. But Psion won't - actually, can't - compete with Symbian in phones. Instead, it sees the value of Linux as giving the world a smaller, more reliable and more portable personal computer.
The handheld market right now is in the doldrums. "When Microsoft first said they'd blow us out of the water was 1990," reminisced Potter. "It's gone through many morphings, with Winpads and so on; but they haven't really understood the market a hundred percent. Even today, they don't understand that the cellphone industry is predominantly a consumer market."
Potter reckons the typical corporate executives - buyers of PDAs, of course - account for 5-6 per cent of the world market. "That's why Microsoft haven't had traction. They're learning, and may be they will learn what it's about, but it's amazing how long they've been working on this, without getting it."
The smart phone business, generically, is in the hands of Nokia. Psion CFO Bill Jessup jibbed at the suggestion that Nokia had "taken over" Symbian, but when a shareholder moves from having 30-odd per cent of the stock to having 63 per cent, that's what it is usually called. In a year's time, in any case, all phones will be, essentially, "smart" and it will be a marketing decision, not a technology issue, about how much of that smartness is visible to the user.
And most of the Symbian phone/computer hybrids will be Nokia, either directly, or as licensees of the Series 60 version - like the Sendo X, for example, which is due to launch this month. Sony Ericsson is plugging on with its own version, for now; but Sony itself has close links with PalmSource (through the Palm-based Clie series) and Samsung and Siemens are both playing footsie with Microsoft. Officially, Motorola still has a licence, but nobody is expecting a significant Motorola presence with Symbian phones. If that's hand-helds and phones either dead in the water or owned by Nokia, where can Psion go?
That's what worried Potter and his colleagues. The risk, as they saw it, was getting high.
"We've seen a concentration of power in the marketplace," said Potter. He's not decrying what Nokia has done. "To their credit, Nokia has invested heavily in Symbian; they are the major customer, with a dominant position. But the key underlying issue is: 'will this company be independent, or publicly owned, or a trade company?' and that is the issue for Psion - the risks in there are substantial! - and we felt that we could not see the future of how that might evolve."
Symbian, Potter thinks, could have got into other opportunities; "For example, they could expand into providing middleware and glueing together the software in the motor-car of the future," he suggested. "Those car manufacturers - more and more of them have more and more stuff they have to handle; they need middleware to bring it all together; want plugins, and a common standard. The need is clear."
Psion may not be able to get into the auto market, but it can move in that direction, and one foot in the water is to start selling systems software on a mobile platform. "I agree fully with what you said about the excess power in the modern desktop; that's where Linux is so important. Essentially, where people want something small and speedy, you're putting great big tractors on people's desks; they become very complex and fragile. I think Linux is the way that's going to be taken forward, with a whole variety of products and offerings."
The share price? It's dismissed as irrelevant by insiders.
"The announcement indicates that most other Symbian licensees are using the O/S just for niche products, rather than core & strategic parts of their product line," summarised Disruptive Analysis founder Dean Bubley. "This is particularly true of other licensees of Series 60," he observed.
Another consultant said that the shares were held by "the wrong sort of people." Comms expert Hank Maus remarked: "People who are saying that it's not a great price are not understanding the context. They were expecting higher numbers - but where did the higher numbers come from? We think from those consultants who held shares, and who wanted an IPO!"
Maus thinks the IPO was - and remains - unlikely, and he compared the value of the shares when Motorola sold them -worth around £300 million by that estimate - to the £450 million implied by this sale. And he added: "Most people who invested in Psion, were in because of Symbian. That's why the shakeout; they don't know what's left, don't know what it's worth."
We'll have to wait till after the March 2nd announcement by Psion of its year-end financial figures, before the company feels free to start predicting the future. It has hinted broadly at the idea that it would use the money - cash - to start taking over key firms in its chosen area to add to the Teklogix portfolio; it has also admitted that it wants to fund Teklogix out of cash flow, but may want to increase spending on R&D there.
But we do know that there are, already, new product plans from the Canadian branch.
Potter may speak modestly of his approaching retirement and dismiss descriptions of him as a technological whizz-kid, but he will remain an important influence on the corporate direction. And if he's keen on Linux and compact computers, it's hard to see Psion going in a different direction; and if he likes "mobile middleware" as a concept, you should probably start looking for likely targets in that sector.