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3GSM: Symbian signs fifth largest handset maker, eyes CDMA

"Huge" - but guess what all the questions are still about?
Written by Tony Hallett, Contributor

"Huge" - but guess what all the questions are still about?

Symbian has announced two more licensees - including the world's fifth largest handset vendor - and a strong end to 2003 but its announcements at this week's 3GSM World Congress in Cannes have been overshadowed by Nokia's soon-to-be-increased stake in the company that provides an operating system for mobile devices.

South Korea's LG Electronics has licensed the Symbian OS - available in version 8.0 as of now - for use on 2.5G and 3G devices. The move means those companies that use the Symbian software in at least some of their handsets account for over 85 per cent of mobile phone sales, according to figures from Gartner Group.

LG Electronics is a supplier to operators such as Cingular in the US and Europe's Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone and is the world's largest provider of phones based on CDMA, a rival second-generation standard to GSM.

Gartner analyst Ben Wood called the LG win "hugely significant".

Symbian clearly feels the same way, CEO David Levin telling silicon.com it "will be very big for CDMA in due course". To date, Symbian has been more of a GSM play, except in 3G phones from Japan's NTT DoCoMo based on the W-CDMA standard, typically an evolution from GSM, though ironically not in DoCoMo's case.

Symbian also announced a new interface from its subsidiary UIQ, allowing pen-based, touch-screen phone use, as well as a deal for its OS to be used by Arima, a vendor little-known outside Asia but Taiwan's second largest handset-maker with shipments - many of them unbadged to other handset companies - of around 10 million in its last year.

Symbian executives were keen to play up recent good stats after a slow start by the company, now a joint venture between Matsushita, Nokia, Psion, Siemens and Sony Ericsson. For example, Handango.com figures now place Symbian OS applications as the most downloaded smart phone apps, in competition with software for Palm OS- and Windows Mobile-based devices.

But despite the cheery news most questions to CEO Levin are currently about Nokia's imminent purchase of Psion's stake in the company. The other stakeholders have a right to buy some of departing Psion's equity - though it seems Symbian execs are the only ones talking of such a move.

"Our stakeholders don't have to show their hands yet and I wouldn't expect them to do so," said Levin.

But the fear is that licensees - and potential licensees - will be scared off by a venture that once touted itself as a cross-industry play but which could soon be dominated by the most powerful company in mobile.

Analysts say that information coming out of Symbian - much of it reported these days as if the company were a publicly traded entity - is in danger of being missed by a focus on ownership changes.

Levin also told silicon.com the company won't be filing for an initial public offering this year and that although a flotation "is one of the options", it was "never a prospect in for 2004".

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