Enterprise apps and new OS broaden Symbian focus

The smartphone software developer has introduced programmes to improve its credibility with enterprises, but the mass market is still at the centre of its game

Symbian is hoping to increase business interest in its smartphones this week, with the launch of new enterprise applications and a programme that will give vendors such as Adobe and Borland an advisory role.

The company also launched a new version of its operating system with a new Java implementation, while Symbian backer Psion Software introduced a package intended to add BlackBerry-style always-on email to Symbian phones.

Symbian is backed by, and licenses its software to, all of the major mobile phone companies, including Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Samsung and Siemens. Its software adds computer-like functions to mobile phones, and allows them to run third-party applications.

The Symbian Enterprise Advisory Council (SEAC), introduced on Tuesday at the start of the two-day Symbian Exposium developer conference in London, is intended to address criticism that Symbian and its licensees have focused on consumers and the mass market to the neglect of businesses. Members including Accenture, Adobe Systems, Borland, Oracle and SAP will advise on Symbian's software development and keep it aligned with corporate interests, Symbian said.

However, Symbian chief executive David Levin made it clear that the company and its licensees will continue to aim handsets at the widest possible customer base, rather than narrowly targeting businesses. "Symbian is designed for the mass market," he said in an interview. "It is the perfect platform for the enterprise, but companies would never invest until the hardware was there."

Now several mass-market Symbian devices are widely available, including handsets from Nokia and the recently introduced P800 from Sony Ericsson, and a number of software vendors are demonstrating business-oriented software at the Exposium. Levin said that the biggest potential lay with workers in the field, such as mobile sales forces and field service engineers.

Psion Software's Transcend mail software system, introduced on Tuesday at the expo, takes advantage of the wide availability of these handsets to offer a low-cost alternative to Research in Motion's BlackBerry, a popular device offering always-on email. Instead of buying specialised devices for access to enterprise email, companies can buy Psion's software and then upgrade employees' mobile phones through scheduled replacements.

Symbian's new operating system version, 7.0s, includes improved telephony and networking technology. Also in 7.0s, Symbian has updated the Java mobile information device profile to version 2.0, introduced a multi-threaded multimedia framework for media-centric applications such as games, and added support for Arabic and Hebrew languages.

The approach of Symbian's licensees is to invest substantial sums -- from $20m to $40m, according to Levin -- in developing highly differentiated handsets and then spreading the cost across a large customer base. This approach contrasts with Microsoft's smartphone programme, which treats mobile phone handsets as a more or less interchangeable commodity.

However, Symbian handsets have begun to make use of certain standardised specifications, including screen size, which Levin said will ultimately bring hardware prices down below what Microsoft's licensees can achieve. Nokia has licensed its Series 60 user interface, which uses a standard-sized screen, to several manufacturers including Siemens and Samsung, while Sony Ericsson's P800 and the forthcoming BenQ P30 use the UIQ interface, which has a larger screen standard.

"The driver of cost in a handset is not the processor or the software, it is the screen," Levin said.

Symbian's approach has already seen some early success, with 1.18 million devices shipping in the first quarter of this year, up from 2.1 million for all of last year, largely due to the influx of new devices from Nokia and Sony Ericsson. However, that figure is a fraction of the 400 million mobile phones sold every year worldwide, and Levin is not declaring victory yet. "This year we have had only a few phones, selling in small to medium volumes. In the next year we will have a good number of phones and sales will continue to increase," he said.

As of the end of March, 21 future Symbian products were under development from 10 licensees, Levin said.

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