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Symbian: smartphone not dead

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Interview Things haven't had turned out as expected, agrees David Wood, executive VP of research at Symbian. Symbian phones dominate the smartphone market, but last week we suggested a number of reasons why the device category hadn't reached the volumes once predicted. And in many cases, where people have one, they really aren't using the features.

Was it battery life, usability, or just the fact that converged devices sometimes offered the worst of all worlds? Or is it simply that old technology is sometimes the most appropriate?

(See Whatever happened to... the smartphone?) for more, while 'Smart phones' - stupid punters? reveals the extent of the mobile crisis.)

David offers compelling evidence that old technology very often is the most optimal - he uses a seven year-old PDA. But we'll get onto that in a moment.

"We had an optimistic view, and a naive view in some ways, on how the market would pan out," he told us today. "In some other ways it's panned out better than we expected. When you look at the number of people using Symbian it's approaching 100m users [actually, cumulative devices sold - ed]. And we would have been very happy to settle for that.

"But other aspects have been surprising. It's time to acknowledge that and restate how we think it will turn out."

The new focus from Symbian is on smartphones as digital organizers.

"Some applications are successful, such as mobile email. I won't change phones unless it's got the push email that I've grown accustomed to. That's an application on the point of transitioning into a much larger market."

But there are other reasons, he suggests.

"Some of them you could call systems things. In theory, browsing, as you pointed out, has been on phones for some time. and more recently, you've been able to use browsers like Opera, if you're patient.

"But things keep moving forward, and improving, and the browser is now very powerful. Nokia have now shipped this new browser [for S60 3E, called "Web"], and the reaction to this is often 'gosh, I didn't realize you could have that on a phone!'"

"It's still not perfect, but it's going to improve. If you see how far browsing has come in five years, it's come a long way. Those of us close to it wish it could improve faster, but if you look at it over five years and not five months, you'll see it has."

Dumb phones not so dumb

The continuing strength of phones with the manufacturers' own built-in operating systems has also been a factor, he acknowledged.

"We didn't forsee the vitality of the feature phones. The basic idea of Symbian was that built-in operating systems wouldn't be able to scale with more and more technology. That's basically correct. Basic operating systems struggle. But they've manged to stay alive long than we expected, as people found ingenious ways to extend the life of these operating systems, despite the complexity.

"But it's only a matter of time, we think, as they have more and more wireless channels in them - Wi-Fi and WiMAX as well as cellular, for example. Manufacturers will switch over more to using an open operating system rather than an in-house operating system."

As for digital organizers, was the iPod, and the continuing sales success of Palm PDA (despite neglecting the product category for years), proof that there was a demand for dedicated devices? And wasn't he proof, too?

"I use a Series 5 which I have an awful lot of data on, that I don't think would survive a round trip," he says.

"I appreciate the large screen and large keyboard. I expect that one of these days someone will produce something like a a 9500 will be good enough. I'm not a terrible hurry," he says.

"But brand new users, who don't have that history you and I have, will be more comfortable with a converged device."

We ran threw a few things that an "unconverged", or dedicated device could do better. The large screen and keyboard is a good example, but there's also the ability to control and categorize personal data better. Tasks (or "To Do" items) on S60 don't have categories. On UIQ, they don't have priorities. How could the phone guys sell it as a better PDA, we wondered, when it was worse?

Tasks were that way because the designers didn't want to burden the new user with complexity, said Wood. But he did hope the eco-system would provide better PIM apps - at which point the phone manufacturers would incorporate it into a phone.

(That isn't what you want to hear if you're a software author).

"It wouldn't surprise me if it's improved from phone to phone, he said. Nokia isn't a monolith about these things."

Symbian had considered a desktop version of its old PsiWin application, something similar to Palm Desktop, but had decided it wasn't a core strength.

"It's interesting what might have been," he mused.

Overall, he sees convergence as fewer devices, with a few people still having several, and no one having the same one.

And the faith remains that like Field of Dreams, if you built it, they'll come.

"SMS was in phones before people realized they could use it. Then phones could send multipart messages, and it took some time before people realized they could send longer messages. It will take time for people to discover the features". ®

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