Symbian is the mobile world's dominant operating system, but can it walk the walk in the business world or will it always be the poor cousin to Windows Mobile in the enterprise? David Braue finds out.
Users rejoice: by all accounts, Apple's popular iPhone will hit Australian shores sometime later this year. It's arrival will mark a far less auspicious milestone for network administrators: the introduction of a fourth discrete mobile operating system that will add significant new complexity for them to deal with.
Despite analyst warnings that the iPhone is better suited as a consumer device rather than a business tool, smartphones have shown a tendency to straddle both markets.
From a governance perspective they're also liabilities that must be reconciled with corporate policies on data security.
This dynamic makes it imperative for businesses to proactively manage not only iPhones, but the broad range of other mobile devices and their operating systems — most importantly, Windows Mobile, Research In Motion's BlackBerry OS and the widely used Symbian OS.
The problem posed by all smartphones, of course, is that they provide a range of additional functionality compared with your average talk-and-text models. Push e-mail, data synchronisation, high-speed connectivity, location-based data capture services, and all this, together with multi-gigabyte storage, means smartphones are about far more than just telephone calls.
Such devices' flexibility makes them important tools for many workers, but from a governance perspective they're also liabilities that must be reconciled with corporate policies on data security. With many employees now using smartphones as data capture devices in the field, for example, this data must be copied and backed up at regular intervals to safeguard against device loss, theft or damage.
Many companies will want to enforce control over what sort of information can be copied to the phones. Others will want access to on-phone information such as SMS and call logs.
Little wonder that Microsoft's Windows Mobile has become increasingly popular, with businesses rolling out new mobile applications to their fleets: with close ties to Microsoft Exchange and, by extension, to the rest of Microsoft's server ecosystem, Windows Mobile offers a compelling story when it comes to managing smartphones in the enterprise.
Microsoft's new Windows Server 2008 operating system further tightens the link through the new Microsoft System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008 tool.
Because Microsoft offers a complete management story that covers both the server side and the device side, many companies will choose an end-to-end mobile Windows solution, with their mobile devices relatively well under control.
Despite efforts to the contrary, Windows Mobile is still a distant second place in Australia's smartphone market.
The Goliath of mobiles
This would be reassuring news for many companies, but for one thing: despite efforts to the contrary, Windows Mobile is still a distant second place in Australia's overall smartphone market.
In the third quarter of 2007, IDC's Mobile Phone Tracker found that Windows Mobile devices accounted for just 8.9 percent of converged devices sold in Australia with Symbian OS taking in 83.3 percent of the smartphone market thanks to its position at the core of every Nokia smartphone — as well as models from several vendors including Sony Ericsson, Samsung, Panasonic, LG and Motorola.
Even with such a large share of the market, Symbian OS has started to lose the exclusivity it once enjoyed: Sony Ericsson, the last holdout, is now preparing to launch its Windows Mobile-based Xperia X1 later this year.
That leaves Nokia as the last Symbian-only vendor in the market, if you discount its use of Linux on Internet tablets. However, with such a dominant market share it's a position Nokia is well-prepared to weather: while many vendors are tapping Windows Mobile for everything-but-the-kitchen-sink models, Mark Novosel, IDC Australia's market analyst for telecommunications and author of the Mobile Phone Tracker, says such 'hero products' are a long way from tipping the overall balance in the market.
Symbian OS is very flexible, developer support has given a wide range of apps to choose from, and I can't see them losing ground.
Mark Novosel, Analyst IDC
"Symbian is the dominant force," he explains. "While Microsoft will of course be doing the best it can do to change that — as will the vendors with different flavours of Linux now coming to market — they're all minor players at this stage. Symbian OS is very flexible, developer support has given a wide range of apps to choose from, and I can't see them losing ground."
Symbian continues to enjoy market success — some 77.3 million Symbian smartphones shipped in 2007, with eight commercial licensees developing 69 different models and 141 different devices in the market.
That's a major jump from 2006, when 51.7 million Symbian devices shipped, just 56 models were in development at year's end and 108 models were available in the market. According to Symbian, there are 8,736 applications available in the market.
Ongoing growth may bode well for Nokia but it means headaches for system administrators who are being increasingly pressured to reel in wayward mobile devices.
Microsoft can build a business case around the synergies between its mobile, desktop and server operating systems, although devices based on Windows Mobile have tended to be more expensive high-end models than many companies want to deploy widely. Conversely, Symbian licensees — Nokia and Sony Ericsson most importantly — have tended to focus on producing less-expensive, mass-market phones that have had fewer cohesive options when it comes to systematic device management.
Recent moves have suggested the polarisation of the market may rapidly be resolved: Nokia is pushing Symbian into both higher end smartphones and mass-market talk-and-text candybars aimed at mobile workers; Microsoft, for its part, recently purchased mobile maker Danger in an attempt to push Windows Mobile down into higher-volume, lower-end territory. Even the BlackBerry, long the staid preserve of the business world, has been sexing up its devices with GPS, music, video and other capabilities.
Hardware's mobile technology maturity is fast outpacing that of software, challenging it to standardise its mobile devices in order to simplify management and security.
Benjamin Gray, analyst Forrester Research
Analyst firm Forrester Research recently warned of the dangers this rapidly changing market presents for business: "Whether it's PCs or handhelds, IT needs remote control over all mobile assets," wrote analyst Benjamin Gray. "Hardware's mobile technology maturity is fast outpacing that of software, challenging IT to standardise its mobile devices in order to simplify management and security."
It is that standardisation which will elude corporate policymakers, not the least because many devices are entering the workplace at the hands of employees themselves.
What network administrators desperately need is a consistent management platform capable of addressing the idiosyncrasies of each mobile platform.
It is only recently, however, that such a platform seems to be even close to realisation.
One major step in this direction came when HP recently bought mobility management vendor Bitfone. The company's OpenView systems management environment already has a dominant position within the world's medium and large businesses. Bitfone's Enterprise Mobility Suite currently provides remote management of around two dozen devices, with the majority being Windows Mobile-based and just four models — the Nokia E61, E62, E70 and 9500 — based on Symbian OS.
Whether HP will expand the device compatibility of EMS remains to be seen, but its interest in Bitfone reflects the growing imperative for mobile devices to be brought into the fold. Other standalone tools — such as BlackBerry management tools from BoxTone, multi-platform solutions like Sybase's Afaria and InnoPath's iMDM Device Suite — so far don't integrate tightly with mainstream enterprise platforms.
Despite their proven user appeal, the limited management capabilities available for Symbian and BlackBerry devices may well open an opportunity for Windows Mobile.