Symbian, the mobile phone industry-backed software company, has unveiled a significant update to its operating system for smartphones, adding better support for developers and improving security.
Version 7.0 of the Symbian OS, announced at the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes, is squarely focused on next-generation networks and the services they will make possible, according to the company. Support for multimode and 3G networks means that phones based on Symbian OS 7.0 will in theory at least work in any part of the world, including Japan where 3G networks are now live. Version 6.0 of the operating system already supports GPRS.
With version 7.0, Symbian also adds support for EMS and MMS -- multimedia messaging formats that are expected to be key revenue drivers for consumer handsets -- and Java's Mobile Information Device Platform (MIDP), allowing it to run a wide variety of existing mobile device software.
"As we enter 2002, we're finally seeing the building blocks in place to help drive the rapid adoption of Symbian OS phones," said Mark Edwards, Symbian's executive vice president of sales and marketing, in a statement. "The industry is now rapidly aligning on open mobile standards, 2.5G data networks are being rolled out, and developers are writing attractive mobile applications and services."
To boost security, Symbian OS 7 supports IPSec, a standard for creating virtual private networks (VPNs), which are a favoured way of accessing corporate data. It also supports IPv6, the next version of Internet Protocol, which will vastly increase the number of unique IP addresses that can exist, something which will become increasingly important with the proliferation of Internet-enabled wireless devices.
Symbian said it has already shipped development software to handset makers like Nokia and Sony Ericsson, and will ship finalised software in the first quarter. Phones running the software won't appear for several months, however.
This year marks a turning point for Symbian, as it attempts to move away from its role as a low-key software developer to take a more aggressive stance against competitors like Microsoft's Windows CE-based mobile software. The company recently shed its chief executive, Colly Myers, as part of the shift in direction.
Both Symbian and Microsoft are promoting standards that can be used independent of the hardware. "It's important for end users and developers to know that the OS and software guys are going to push the platform," said IDC analyst Tim Mui. "End users like to know they're using the same thing across all devices. That's a message Microsoft has been putting across really well."
Only one major handset maker, Samsung, has agreed to make Microsoft-based handsets, and the software giant convinced UK manufacturer Sendo to join in by buying a stake in the company. But the company, with its billions in cash, remains a huge potential competitor. "Symbian doesn't have anywhere near the strength of Microsoft to drive the market. So they need to move to get Symbian devices out quickly," Mui said.
But Symbian also may find itself competing with the brands of its own stakeholders, notably Sony Ericsson and Nokia. For example, Nokia on Tuesday announced it will licence its own Symbian-based Series 60 and Series 80 user interface and hardware platform to other manufacturers.
Industry analysts don't expect there to be much change in the market until late this year, when the industry is likely to begin pushing devices based on GPRS, featuring a new level of multimedia services. "At the moment it's OK because GPRS is not widely available in Europe. It's the calm before the big rush," Mui said.
The widespread arrival of data-centred network technologies such as GPRS and 3G, supplementing or replacing voice-centric GSM, is expected to pave the way for a flood of devices combining elements of handheld computers and mobile phones, with features such as email, multimedia messaging and streaming video. GPRS has been around in Europe for some time, and BT Cellnet has been offering it in the UK for about a year and a half, but it is only now beginning to be stable and widespread enough to be practical. It is still not possible, for example, to roam between different companies' GPRS networks within Europe.
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