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Symbian founder on mobile past, present and future

Why Skype's a chimera and why the iPod is great

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Exclusive Colly Myers has had a pretty low profile since leaving Symbian two years ago.

For the former Managing Director of Psion, the Symbian OS is very much his baby. Before Psion, he was a mainframe programmer, and always wanted to see a mainframe-class operating system on a handheld. So he instigated the project, ten years ago this November, and led the kernel team. In 1998 Psion nudged Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola into investing in the OS to create a standalone company.

Now he's back with the phone answers service AQA (text 63336 and for a quid, you'll get a researched answer back by SMS in a few minutes). So we were pretty curious about how he took stock of the current business, what lies ahead and what he's learned. Some of the answers may surprise you.

Software is a service

The most surprising revelation came when we asked how many Symbian applications are running on his phone (a Nokia 6600).

"Not one," he says. He simply doesn't see a mass market for software. Instead, he thinks, most people will want "a lot of things you can get on the Internet on your phone translated as a service, piece by piece".

"For raw OS software there isn't a market - it will become a Java market; one where you can download and run applications everywhere." The data downloads market for ringtones is worth billions, but that's a service, he points out.

We rifled through our back interviews and pulled one out from February 2000. Even then Myers when asked if the killer app for phone really might be something as simple as talking to people, "I really don't know [and] I don't think anyone knows".

At the time he forecast 100 million wireless information devices by 2003-4, in line with analysts and as we all know that's about 80 million short of predictions. That said, he's bullish about the prospects for Symbian and for the mobile industry as a whole, once it realizes how much transactions are worth, and developers realize that software is a service.

Myers characterized the much-hyped VoIP operators like Skype as a "chimera" and predicted the winners and losers.

But the other surprising answer is that he doesn't have much faith in the success of feature-packed phones that do a little bit of everything, not very well.

"I used to think you could convert a lot of things [to an all-in-one smartphone] but I'm older and wiser, I think," he told us. Instead he sees a bright future for best of breed devices such as the iPod.

"You end up with a 'spork' - a combination of a spoon and a fork. It's no good as a spoon and no good as a fork."

(This interview was conducted before the pre-emption process and new financing arrangement for Symbian were announced. One observation of Myers proved to be prescient. "Nokia haven't proven themselves to be bad," he said. "So you might as well go along with it until they start behaving badly." That seems to be the prevailing mood, as the refinancing boosted the head count and saw increased commitment from the other partners.)

Now read on...

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