London-based Symbian is stepping up its drive into Japan's 3G market. A development agreement with NTT DoCoMo, the nation's dominant mobile phone player, could ultimately influence what software powers 3G handsets in Europe, the US and other nascent next-generation industries.
The deal is a boost for Symbian against competition from Linux, Microsoft, PalmSource and other competitors, and paves the way for broader use of the Symbian OS in DoCoMo's FOMA 3G handsets. As Japan's leading 3G provider, DoCoMo's actions have substantial influence on the direction of 3G development in Japan and elsewhere.
Under the Operator Technology Integrator agreement announced on Friday, DoCoMo will get the right to customise and extend the Symbian OS source code for use with its FOMA 3G service in Japan, and to distribute the customised software to Symbian-licensed handset manufacturers.
DoCoMo already uses Symbian-based 3G handsets, but these were customised by manufacturer Fujitsu to DoCoMo's specifications. The development deal means that DoCoMo can do the customisation work itself, and present a ready-made software layer to handset makers, rather than relying on handset makers to do the development individually, making the process more efficient and less costly.
"This validates the view that the Symbian OS can be used by network operators to customise their handsets," said Symbian spokesman Peter Bancroft. Other operating system providers "don't have this kind of relationship. They don't allow network operators to customise to the same extent," he said.
In Japan, manufacturers have so far relied on their own proprietary operating systems to drive advanced handsets, but Bancroft argued that there is some doubt as to whether these systems are advanced enough to power upcoming generations of 3G devices. The DoCoMo deal is geared towards handsets appearing in late 2004 or early 2005, he said.
Another major threat is Linux. "Linux is used extensively in the (Japanese) consumer electronics industry, and some manufacturers are looking at extending the use of Linux into the mobile phone world," Bancroft said. But he believes Symbian is far easier and less expensive to customise for use in smartphones, because much of the work has already been done: "To win this particular agreement, in the heart of Linux's territory, is very important for us."
He said that PalmSource's Palm OS, used in handheld computers and wireless devices, and even Microsoft's Windows CE have "no traction" in Japan so far.
Hutchison 3G has already launched a 3G service in the UK, known simply as 3, but subscribers have been limited mostly to imported Japanese handsets so far, which is considered one factor behind low subscriber growth.
The Symbian OS, the latest evolution of the EPOC software that originally powered Psion handhelds, is already making its way into UK 3G handsets. Last month Motorola announced the launch of the Symbian-powered A920 handset, which will be available in the UK only through 3.
The A920, which runs on Symbian OS 7.0, lets users conduct video calls, download video clips and access the Web via a 3G network. It also contains PDA functionality, with a touch-sensitive 65K colour screen that's large enough to show 20 lines of readable text. According to Symbian, the device offers handwriting recognition, can also be operated as an MP3 player, and supports several Java games.
Sales of Symbian smartphones -- mainly used in GPRS, or 2.5G, devices -- have risen in recent months, giving the company a major financial boost. The mobile-phone operating system maker said last month that 2.68 million Symbian-based handsets shipped in the first six months of 2003, more than 10 times the number that it sold in the same period a year ago.
This pushed up the amount of money that Symbian received from royalties on the sales of phones using its software to £10.2m, up from £1.5m for the first half of 2002, and is a further indication that the smartphone market is booming. Symbian's overall revenues for the period totalled £21.1m.
Nine separate mobile phone makers either sell Symbian-based phones or are developing them -- including Nokia and Sony Ericsson.
The Palm OS is used in some smartphones, notably the Treo line, while Microsoft Smartphone is used in several devices developed by contract manufacturers. Motorola recently announced it would standardise most of its handsets on Linux, but is also developing Symbian and Windows devices.