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Do phones need an OS outside the enterprise?

Despite these hurdles, the demand for rich media applications and functions such as downloading will undoubtedly drive Java, which is starting to prove itself as a strong platform to deliver such benefits, and as it becomes dominant it will shift the politics surrounding the handset operating system.

Both Symbian OS and Windows Mobile, in their current incarnations at least, are heavily geared to the smartphone - a business-oriented device that seeks to behave like a PC in a phone casing, with dedicated applications processors and an OS and interface that works similarly to that of a computer.

There is no doubt that the fight to the death between Nokia and Microsoft to control this platform is largely an enterprise issue. It is a vital one - as the smartphone evolves to become the de facto corporate client platform, slowly eclipsing the conventional PC, Microsoft needs to retain its influence by ensuring that the phone is basically another incarnation of the Wintel PC, while Nokia sees its opportunity to supplant the Windows giant and control the client architecture itself, with all the enterprise business that could leverage.

This market is peculiar because the carriers have so little power in it. But back in consumer land, the operating system picture is far less clear cut and the Java-supporting carriers hold many key cards. The application processor, which is essential for Symbian OS or Windows to run, becomes less important and the focus is on media chips and screens.

Since these are power hungry themselves, there is a strong case for omitting the apps processor and the complex OS and running Java directly on the real time operating system, present in all phones, that controls the actual running of the device. Increasingly, that cutdown OS is likely to be Linux, although Microsoft is pitching for this market too with real time implementations of Windows CE.

To become truly universal, Symbian OS will need to shrink down significantly, and command lower royalties - something the Symbian group claims will develop over the coming year as the system starts to appear in midmarket phones.

However, there is a question mark over how far there will be a place for the OS further down the food chain, where Java, once it achieves critical mass, will provide the universality that was one goal for Symbian OS. As Sun chief Scott McNealy put it: "It's so 'last millennium' to write to the operating system. You must write to the Java web services layer."

Such an approach, combined with a cutdown OS such as real time Linux, not only promises to help deliver multimedia service and customised handsets with low power consumption, but it enables the operators to avoid technology controlled by Nokia. As such, it is sure to be taken very seriously by the carriers, an opportunity that Sun and the Java industry need to seize as aggressively as possible.

© 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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