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UI wars ‘tore Symbian apart’ – Nokia

Tea with Mr Series 60

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3GSM Not to dwell too long on a family squabble, but it's hard to write about Nokia's smart phone endeavors without running into the labyrinthine politics of its alliance. Nokia's Mr. Series 60 - Jukka Riivari, who is director of OEM sales for the platform - acknowledges what a troubled road it has been so far. Series 60 is the runaway leader for smart phone UIs so you'd expect him to crow about it. He didn't, though, and the complicated nature of the alliance just got even more complex.

At Cannes this week, Nokia has found itself competing with a platform from the company it has just bid to control, Symbian. Symbian's UIQ division has announced that it would take its pen-based UI - UIQ - which runs on Symbian OS and make a one-handed "penless" version that competes head-on with Nokia's Series 60, which also runs on the Symbian OS.

Follow us so far? A quick recap of how we got here is useful. At one time Symbian offered three platforms, or reference designs, representing three flavors of smart phone. Most of the code was the same of course, but the final ten or 15 per cent of an application is the user interface and this proved to be highly contentious. Since Symbian was founded by the big players with the intention that it wouldn't behave like Microsoft, where one size fits all and the UI is not negotiable, the following three-headed compromise was reached.

The mass market "Pearl" was to be a one-handed traditional phone UI; the pen-based "Quartz" was favored by Motorola and Ericsson while "Crystal" was pretty much designed by Nokia as the replacement for its Communicator 9000 series. Symbian acquired the Ronneby lab in Sweden from Ericsson to work full-time on the pen-based Quartz, and that's the UI now known as Quartz (UIQ) that appears in the Sony Ericsson P800, P900 and three of Motorola's 3G smart phones.

Then Symbian decided it didn't want to be in the UI business. Nokia took charge of Pearl, designed its own UI and began licensing it as Series 60. Crystal became Series 80 which is a Nokia-only platform, and not licensed to anyone.

But then Symbian decided it had better stay in the UI business after all, and tried to shop the Ronneby lab to anyone who was interested. But nobody was. A joint venture between the two manufacturers keenest on pen smartphones, Motorola and Ericsson, failed to materialise, so UIQ remains a part of Symbian, and the part that's most uneasy about the mooted "controlling stake" Nokia will acquire.

One hand clapping

Nokia's Riivari said he wasn't concerned by the competition from Symbian, although he did permit himself a little gloat that Nokia had made the right decision to back one-handed interfaces.

"We think one-handed is a good choice, and UIQ think so too, now," he told us. He confirmed that the company's history was marked by "people fighting over which UI to develop", which had torn the venture apart. Sony Ericsson is highly motivated to use UIQ, he notes, and it's a fair point that Motorola, which seems happy with UIQ, prefers to license it from Symbian than directly from a competitor. Even though it isn't a Symbian shareholder any longer.

So much for the UI wars.

He acknowledged that Nokia had learned a lot from the Series 60 process so far. The biggest concern from licensees was getting phones to market quickly. The ideal should be eight months. Siemens has had a rough time getting its SX1 out of the door. The phone was announced at last year's 3GSM in February and only started appearing in quantity last month. To speed things up Nokia will work with intermediaries who specialise in integration, what he calls a "distributed production structure", and inked a deal with Texas Instruments for an off-the-shelf hardware and software platform.

OEMs seem to be happy enough with customizing their Series 60s, he says, and he cites the application bundle as the main selling point. And, he reminds us, they get the source code.

"Not everything was mature to begin with," he admits.

How could Nokia persuade its customers that it didn't have an unfair advantage, we wondered. Jukka said that Nokia hits a three month release cycle with Series 60, and doesn't use every release itself.

"They want guarantees. And we're under strict surveillance to make sure we don't take shortcuts," he said.

Would Nokia consider floating the Series 60 operation as an autonomous company, "the Series 60 company", we wondered?

No, he didn't see a future for another Symbian-style operation, he said, because the revenue doesn't justify it. "It would not make sense," he said, adding that Symbian itself "had more financial constraints than we expected" and Nokia moved to grab Psion's shareholding to maintain its viability. Symbian itself says it should break even by the end of the year.

So perhaps that will be a coda on the smart phone OS wars: there was never any money it. PalmSource will surely beg to differ. But if that's the case, the real experience of building complex consumer electronics devices will have defied Wall Street's religious fundamentalists - horizontal good! vertical bad! And there's a moral in there somewhere. ®

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