First published on IT-Director.com
There was always likely to be tension when several hardware companies got together to sponsor a common software platform. But how successful has the process been, and what does the fallout now mean for the players involved? The reasons for starting out in 1998 were for the companies involved roughly the same. Defensive, and against the apparently incessant march of Microsoft. That's why several major mobile manufacturers invested in Psion's EPOC child, Symbian.
Six years on, did the plan work?
Arguably, yes. Microsoft has not achieved total domination of the rapidly growing smart phone market, nor for that matter, the now maturing PDA market. True, they are doing quite nicely with some strong and committed licensees, but despite a number of solid advances in the platform, I'd still only rate the Windows Mobile operating system product as "Windows 3.1". Which to be fair, was the first, functional mass-market version of the desktop operating system, so this is not faint praise. It also means that the threat has certainly not gone away yet.
So what's happening with the hardware companies?
Motorola appeared to change its mind in 2003 when it sold out of Symbian, despite the launch of the A920 Symbian-based 3G phone into the market. It then later appeared to switch camps to Microsoft, with the launch of the MPx200. Although Motorola has touched on the importance of Linux and Java, too, so perhaps it has decided to play the field a little longer before settling down again.
As for Nokia, a company not renowned for allowing others to control its destiny, or being limited from differentiating its products by overly constraining standards, it was surely only a matter of time before it decided to act. The company however has stated its $250 million investment, in buying out Psion and taking its holding to 63% of Symbian, is purely to keep the company competitive in the market.
Sony Ericsson, has had much business user success with its Symbian-based flagship, the P800, and its recently launched successor, the P900, looks like it will be a success with enterprise gadget gathers too. However even the combination of superb Ericsson radio technology with Sony's strong consumer style hasn't yet produced the range of Symbian-based consumer devices that Nokia has managed. Fujitsu and Siemens have produced point devices, for point markets, and although stylish, might be regarded by enterprise purchasing departments as a little fashionable. The SX1 looks like it will appeal more likely to iMac users than compared to the more conservative audience of the still stylish, but traditional layout Sony Ericsson Px00s.
Samsung launched a wave of smartphones last year at Telecom World, but took an operating system agnostic approach all the way, with a device for each of the platforms. A dear, late colleague of mine once remarked, "when in doubt, click everything", and this seems to be the route Samsung have taken. Perhaps Motorola are starting to click everything too.
For Symbian, stronger ties to Nokia are no bad thing. Which company wouldn't wish to be closely allied to the handset market leader? To be fair, Nokia have stated that the move to acquire Psion's stake won't affect the independence of the licensing of the software platform, nor limits the market.
This is laudable, but the move is still likely to affect the plans of the other licensees, and perhaps we will see more of them willing to "click everything"? If so this could be good news for the Linux community, PalmSource, and of course, Microsoft.
The organisation apparently hit hardest, is Psion, and this will be seen by many as another sad step in the decline of an innovative mobile computing company. However, if the move by Nokia increases the strength of the Symbian platform, even with a single supplier in the driving seat, the legacy of Psion will live on.
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