Symbian gambles its future on take-up of 3G

Handheld operating system developer Symbian claimed to have reached a major milestone last week. The company, which was formed by Ericsson, Nokia,...

Handheld operating system developer Symbian claimed to have reached a major milestone last week. The company, which was formed by Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola, and Psion nearly two years ago, formally introduced two reference designs for next-generation wireless information devices, which could prove crucial for the future of the platform, writes Danny Bradbury.

The first reference design, called Crystal, has been developed for mobile phone devices which will have 640 x 200dpi colour screens and will also support a keyboard. The second, called Quartz, is designed for lower resolution 240 x 320dpi colour screens and pen-based operation. Both systems are supplied with an application suite but Quartz differs in its use of a new graphical user interface. Despite these differences, about 80% of the underlying code is common to both reference designs and the company has grouped this body of application programming interfaces (APIs) under the label Generic Technology.

Paul Cockerton, head of corporate marketing for Symbian, is unfazed by the increasing market share of Palm and Microsoft, both of whom are dominating the market for PDA operating systems. The company is interested in the smart phone market, he says, rather than the traditional PDA space. This signals a departure from the operating system's roots which lie in the Epoc kernel of Psion's personal organisers, which still vastly outsell dedicated Symbian devices. The latest version of the Symbian platform, the recently-released Version 6, still contains this multitasking Epoc kernel.

"Our focus is on the next generation of mobile phones, which hasn't really started yet," he said. "We are looking at a market that is just beginning, but we are expecting 100 million smart phones to have shipped by 2003."

Ericsson has already shipped a smart phone using the Symbian platform.

The first devices using the Symbian platform are to be GSM-based, although Cockerton expects GPRS support by the end of this year. As for third generation (3G) compatible devices, these will probably appear around the fourth quarter next year, he says, when 3G CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access) devices make their debut. He predicts that this market won't take off until 2002-2003, adding that, in the meantime, voice will continue to be the "killer app".

The latest Symbian platform includes many enhancements. Apart from the two separate reference designs, it offers integrated Bluetooth and implementations of PersonalJava 3.0, and Javaphone 1.0.

Javaphone provides functions including power management, direct telephony control and contact and calendar information access. ARM has ported audio and video-handling Codecs (coders/decoders) to the platform, so users can play MP3 audio and MPeg video files on Symbian-enabled devices.

Symbian 6 also supports Wap, due to the licensing of Nokia's Wap browser technology, and the group has also announced support for the SD memory card, a standard for secure digital storage developed by Matsushita Electric, SanDisk and Toshiba.

If voice is destined to remain as the killer app for the forseeable future, and with PDAs appearing to offer as much mobile functionality as most people will ever need, Symbian is gambling heavily on the uptake of next-generation phones.

The stakes are doubled, given the huge investment that carriers have made in 3G bandwidth and the problems this is bound to create in pricing high-speed multimedia wireless services - which could put the brakes on market development. Nevertheless, Symbian is expecting to expand into international markets, with Motorola launching a Symbian device in the US next year.

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