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UI Wars: Sony loves Symbian – grits teeth

Consortium's future in the balance

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PalmSource's David Nagel raised some eyebrows when he suggested that Sony Ericsson would become a Palm OS convert recently. Sony Ericsson abruptly dismissed the suggestion. But Nagel could be advised to stick around, just in case.

Smart phone licensees have a choice of two user interfaces if they choose Symbian for their phone: the one-handed Series 60 from Nokia or the pen-based UIQ from Symbian. (Nokia doesn't license either the Series 80 or Series 90 user interfaces, or at least, not yet). Sony Ericsson has a unique and close relationship with the part of Symbian that created UIQ. That's because the Ronneby lab in Sweden that develops it used to be part of LM Ericsson.

Launching two new high-end phones this week, Sony Ericsson's CEO, Katsumi Ihara, gave a pointed reminded to Symbian that its commitment had better not waver.

"There are two important factors for Sony Ericsson with the Symbian OS," Ihara said, ComputerWire reports. "It should be open to anybody. Not perceived as proprietary to a single manufacturer. [It also depends on] UIQ being developed within Symbian. As long as those two conditions are met, Symbian will remain our open platform of choice."

Back when Symbian couldn't decide to be in or out of the UI business, but really thought it should be out, a buyer was discreetly sought for the Ronneby lab. Discussions to create a joint-venture with Motorola reached quite an advanced stage. But David Levin, Symbian's second CEO, thought it would be in Symbian's strategic interest to continue to offering UIQ; he decided instead to keep it, but give the lab some independence.

Ihara's nudge is a reminder of how important this decision turned out to be. The disgruntled shareholders who assembled in London this week for Psion's EGM base their opposition on the belief that Symbian is worth more as a vendor-neutral joint venture backed by the largest handset manufacturers. With Motorola having pulled out last year, the "neutral" proposition now very much depends on Sony Ericsson. It has a hit phone with the P900, and where there's volume and an open platform, there should be developers.

Why can't Sony Ericsson simply up its stake? Despite two illustrious parents, the company has been severely constricted for cash. In Ericsson's case, it's can't pay; in Sony's case, it's won't pay. The UIQ team gave Sony Ericsson more reasons to be cheerful at Cannes, announcing a one-handed UIQ user interface that will compete for developers with Series 60. But with resources tight, Sony Ericsson has a reason to be reluctant to pour money into a venture which will be perceived to be owned by Nokia. Why should it do the heavy lifting for the Finns?

Sony has often been criticized for an incoherent OS strategy: it's the leading Palm OS licensee in addition to its own in-house platforms. But device manufacturers like products, and preferably categories that sell well. The success of the P900 arguably gives Sony another of these. Unlike its geeky predecessor the P800, the P900 is proving to be a fashionable item that provides just enough PDA for people who might not otherwise consider two devices.

When we put this to Jeff Hawkins recently, he was adamant that there won't be a Treo Jr sans keyboard, repeating an earlier pledge. Maybe it was a cunning bluff. We don't know.

More troubling for those who think of Symbian as something as more than an offshore Nokia subsidiary is that the two spanking new phones Sony Ericsson unveiled this week really ought, by 1999 logic, to be Symbian devices. Shouldn't designers who create top of-the-line models that don't spare on components - a 224k color screen, and plenty of memory - be able to see the advantage of $5 for an open platform? Symbian always saw in-house vendors drawn to their own platforms as the most insidious threat to the venture, and this gives weight to the idea that in the smart phone wars, the open platforms have been the losers. Perhaps its still too early to call.

David Potter this week reminded us that when Symbian was formed in 1998 it was an alliance of three roughly equal interests. When Sony signed on the following year, the consortium appeared to have unstoppable momentum. Both Nokia's fellow shareholders now look severely diminished how. And Symbian's fate increasingly looks as if it is in Sony Ericsson's hands. ®

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