Sony and Ericsson combined their handset divisions last year, and this year will see the launch of an ambitious range of smartphones, combining the technical expertise of Ericsson with Sony's well-known industrial design and branding skills. Sony Ericsson president Katsumi Ihara has pledged that the P800, launching later this year, will bring with it a well-coordinated package of content and services, tying in with Sony entertainment properties. It will also come equipped with technology in which Ericsson takes a leading role, such as Bluetooth.
ZDNet UK spoke with Sony Ericsson vice president Anil Raj, head of strategy and business development, on the company's plans to catch the interest of jaded mobile phone buyers.
Q: Sony is a huge organisation with interests in all sorts of electronics and operating systems. How do the Symbian smartphones fit into the plan?
A: More and more, consumer electronics are becoming Web-enabled. So if you look at Sony's latest video camera, it has a Web browser. The mobile phone handset is the hub at the centre of all those devices, providing the link to the network. At home, the PC is at the centre, but if you're mobile, the phone is the hub for all that. How committed is Sony to the Symbian OS? Would you consider hedging your bets by making smartphones based on Pocket PC, for example? There are rumours that Sony might make a Pocket PC handheld.
Sony Ericsson only works with one OS. If you look at Sony, it's another matter, it works with Linux, Windows, Palm, et cetera. But we think Symbian is the best choice for mobile devices. It was built from the start as a lightweight operating system. We're also looking at using it potentially with other devices as well, besides mobile phones. In a keynote speech opening the Symbian Developer Expo, Sony Ericsson president Katsumi Ihara talked about coordinating services and content with the launch of every Sony Ericsson handset. Why is that important?
The Symbian phone is an open device, based on open standards. It enables an ecosystem of application developers and content providers. But the average consumer is not going to make sure they have the right phone and then go out and get content and services. They want to open up the box and it's all in there, maybe a Web photo album already enabled, and teaser content to get them started, to get them used to the idea that this is for content, and not just for making calls. We're close to the customer, and we have the opportunity to teach them about the possibilities of these phones. The example of how that wasn't done would probably be WAP, where the services generally weren't enabled out of the box.
Yes, and they're still doing that with GPRS. If you buy a GPRS phone and call the operator and ask for GPRS service, I don't know about the different policies of the operators, but I promise you're not going to have it in 10 minutes. You're going to get two or three phone numbers to call and you're going to have to read through setup instructions. At that point you've lost the battle, they're not going to be interested. So the focus is on content and services. What content and services does Sony Ericsson see being enabled by the technologies that are available now, like GPRS?
Forget GPRS, you've got to forget all the acronyms. I-mode is not a sophisticated system. It's got a good business model that provides a good service and lets everybody make money. People are going to buy a phone for a particular purpose, whether it's to take pictures, or listen to music, or whatever. That's a fact that you have to remember. GPRS is just an enabler. With WAP, and decent security, and digital rights management, I could, say, have a service to subscribe to get messages for all the goals my football team makes. I could get an MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) with a picture or a video clip sent to me, and I could subscribe to that for a month. What will be the key features you will focus on making consumers aware of when you launch the P800 (the first Sony Ericsson-branded Symbian smartphone, arriving later this year)?
The P800 has a full Web browser, in full colour. For a lot of people it's going to be the first time they have that in a mobile device. It has SSL, HTML and everything, so you can get all the applications you have on the Web, your eBay, your Amazon, your shopping, your banking. People know how to use the Web. But it's a new experience in a phone. You can get the Web now, but no one's going to recognise four lines of text on a WAP phone as being the Web. But if you can see a full-colour display, with all the icons and graphics, you can recognise that. You can also use this as a laptop for a short trip. If you have a Bluetooth keyboard, you can enter all the data you want -- there will be a whole range of peripherals to connect to this wirelessly. People will realise they can carry out work on this, particularly since you can edit documents like Word and Excel. Sony Ericsson believes developers need to battle against standards fragmentation with the Symbian OS. What do you mean by that?
Different standards are something we are going to have to learn to live with for a while. The market for mobile software won't really take off until you can be sure your application will run on all Symbian phones. It's not quite there yet. Everyone interprets the specs. No one is there to say, "Hey, you're out of line, you need to do it this way." Everyone wants to make their device better than anyone else's, but the moment you do that you're not compatible. Some analysts say it would make sense to promote the Symbian brand, to let people know that the same software that runs on a Sony Ericsson smartphone will also run on a Nokia smartphone or a Siemens smartphone. Why isn't Sony using the Symbian brand on the hardware or software?
There has to be enough value in Symbian for people to recognise it, before it will make sense to brand these as Symbian devices. How is Sony planning to tie in its games and media content with the P800?
The P800 will have colour, and fast graphics. Sony understands gamers, the PlayStation2 is the world's leading console. We've put a lot of that expertise into these phones. Some of our phones will be able to talk to the console, as well, and interact with the games. For example, if you have a game where the characters need to be trained, you could load the character into your phone, and train it as you're carrying it around with you. It could connect to the PS2 via USB. The P800 could also be tied in to content from one of the Sony Music artists, like Jennifer Lopez or Mariah Carey or whoever. So you could have an album promo on there. Or you could imagine, say, a J-Lo phone loaded with pictures, and her favourite Web sites, sound clips or ring tones, customisations like that. Sony Ericsson wants to drive the Symbian smartphone features from relatively expensive handsets like the P800 down to mid-tier phones that would be affordable for a teenager. How is that going to happen?
It will be a matter of the components of the high-end phones of today migrating down to the lower tier as they become less expensive to manufacture. What's in a high-end phone today will migrate down to a mid-tier phone after 18 to 24 months. These will be lower-cost, higher-volume phones. Sony Ericsson also believes this migration will fight standards fragmentation. Why is that?
If you're a developer for Symbian, in real terms you're limited to the top end today. If you write an application to run on a lot of phones, you have to write for Symbian, for Java, for the Sony Ericsson or Nokia proprietary OS. That's what is meant by fragmentation. If we can migrate Symbian to the mid-tier, you'll be able to write that application once and play it on a lot more phones, so it has the effect of unifying that market. What needs to happen before developers can be confident that their applications will run on any Symbian phone?
We're getting there. There haven't been so many Symbian phones yet, so the differences in user interface, and screen sizes and such things aren't that important so far. It's under control.