Symbian was formed as an independent company in 1998 by UK handheld computer maker Psion, with mobile phone companies Motorola, Nokia and Ericsson, later joined by Panasonic, to form a standard platform for the wireless future.
But the company's vision of mobile phone that doubles as an organiser and data communications tool is just one of several competing platforms. And the competition includes Microsoft with its Windows CE-powered devices, as well as i-mode, the Japanese phone-based online service that has attracted more than 17 million users.
Symbian chief executive Colly Myers spoke with ZDNet UK at the recent GSM World Forum in Cannes, France.
ZDNet: Give us an overview of how you see the mobile phone market going forward. What is the role of the smartphone?
Colly Myers: Voice products are currently driving the market, but those are going to die away. What we need is the new data products to take over and continue to drive, adding on to the mainstream which still has voice as the killer application. Adding on data services will make these better phones.
The first phase of that we're just starting to see are thin clients. It's really about having a browser in a mobile phone; WAP and i-mode are the two key examples of that. We think that will drive the market initially, although with the WAP market it's just a matter of timing really -- you need the next-generation networks to underpin performance.
The key thing we see is that while that's an important start to the service, it won't actually satisfy users. What you need is a much richer kind of client environment which we call an advanced client approach, and we call that whole market segment wireless information devices.
We don't see these devices taking off for a while -- we're talking about 2002 here. That's because we need next-generation networks to come into place, particularly providing packet data.
Packet networks such as GPRS and 3G are faster and provide an always-on network connection. How do you see the importance of the new networks?
That's really when our products are able to add real value, because of that network connection. The point of having this fantastic [Symbian] communicating platform makes sense when you have that kind of connection. We'll see the market start to grow because of that, and the advanced client really delivers.
Some of the Japanese success with i-mode is down to the higher performance they have on their networks; they have a proprietary packet system, which gives them a kind of always-on facility.
Some industry analysts have questioned whether 3G will ever actually take off. The argument is that 3G is too expensive and complex, and that technologies such as GPRS will do just as well.
Our view is 2.5G is the important first step in getting those packet capabilities to the market, and that will grow to the next stage and prepare an understanding of what the packet services are going to do and what these new data services can grow in the market. This is just stage one.
But 3G is important, because as we get more and more users on the network and each of these devices gets an IP address and you actually get multiple devices per customer, you need the extra carrying capacity of 3G and a network ot carry voice traffic as well as data traffic -- that will be important.
It's a matter of timing. It's not a question to my mind whether we need 3G or not. We're certainly going to need it.
Symbian's owners include Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola, who are all big suppliers of 3G equipment. It might seem that they're just pushing a technology people don't really need, out of self-interest.
I don't think it's like that. People used to say the same about GSM, but not any more, because it has created such a large market. Of course there's self-interest in any of this because companies invest to create these standards to create big target markets.
Obviously we are at the vanguard of creating the next generation of devices, and our real value is based on the packet system, because you can use the packet carrier to add really good services. And that's really what it's all about. Forget all these complex things that people talk about, it's about making phones better. That's the market we're in.
Motorola recently dropped out of a wireless organiser project it was co-developing with Psion. Was this the market saying something about the future of converged wireless devices?
I don't think so, I think it's Motorola saying something about Motorola. As they suggested in their press release they've decided they need to focus on the market segment that's most important to them. So they said, look, it's all fine, but we need to focus on smartphones, that's where the volume is, that's where we want to be, and so they pulled the project.
This is sad for us. Nevertheless we understand that in this market projects do get canned, and do get started again.
No particular smartphone design has caught on yet, but there are a lot of different concepts coming to market over the next year or so. Do you think there will ultimately be a shakeout?
I think there will be because nobody knows what the answer is. We need to put a number of different products into the market, and see how users adapt to them, to get some real understanding of this market and the opportunities.
I think some winning propositions will crystallise out of that. There won't be a winning proposition, there will be several. There won't be ten, but there'll be two or three key ones that will hold the volume, and then everybody will rapidly crystallise on that. What matters to us is that the Symbian platform is at the heart of all those propositions.
Symbian is focussed on what you call the advanced client, but the most successful smartphone out there today is a thin client -- NTT DoCoMo's i-mode, in Japan. How do you explain this system's popularity, despite the fact that it is relatively simple?
You could say it's due to packet services being available in Japan. You could say -- and I think this is closer to the truth -- that it's cultural. the Japanese just like gadgets, and that's what driving it. It could be they have lack of PC penetration and that the 16 to 20 age group are using this was a way of getting information and it's taking hold, and that eventually the rest of the world wil catch up.
I think fundamentally it's a cultural thing, touched with some of these other issues.
So you don't think i-mode will necessarily translate to other cultures.
It might, I'm not saying it won't, but I wouldn't bet my money on it. Just because it's been successful there, it doesn't mean that they can successfully transfer i-mode into the European environment.
On the other hand, other very Japanese concepts, such as Game Boy, have proved popular in the West. If it turns out a thin client such as i-mode is all people want, where does that leave Symbian?
The reality of it is i-mode isn't enough, it's just the first stage in the evolution. So even if i-mode is successful it won't be successful for long enough to be a persistent success. It has to evolve, and what does it evolve to?
The reason we're very successful with licensees in Japan is that the next generation needs our kind of services to take i-mode on to the next level.
Thin client is fine, but it's not going to evolve. When you take a ten year view of the industry as we do, it's clear you've got to have something else to offer, and that something is Symbian.
Another thin client that's been quite successful is the BlackBerry wireless handheld from Research In Motion, which is also a simple device that has one killer app.
Again you're looking at cultural locales. There you're looking at a pager-centric market, and BlackBerry has evolved to supply that market. The thing about BlackBerry is that it doesn't have voice at all. It's similar to Palm in some ways, which is very much a local American success that has had carried over to Europe.
We'll see different approaches in different markets -- by no means do we think the whole world will use Symbian devices. It may be in 15 years time, but not in the evolution of market as we go through these phases.
If i-mode fits the Japanese market and BlackBerry fits the American market, how would you describe the needs of the European market?
The Europeans have a very strong concept of the phone, and what it's used for. It's now very much a part of the social fabric of the whole European environment. Something like 60 percent of the 7-11 year olds have a phone. So the evolution of these devices to data-centric devices is based on supporting that paradigm and adding to it.
WAP hasn't taken off rapidly, and it's hardly surprising since it takes time for these things to settle in and to get people to think about them. The first thinking that's been done with WAP is, treat it like a browser. But it's not about browsing, it's about service delivery. As that starts to roll, then WAP services will really start to improve.
You talk about the importance of maintaining the familiar mobile phone experience, but Microsoft has criticised the early Symbian products for not being very practical as phones -- they're too bulky, for one thing.
We're waiting to see their products come to market that solve these problems.
You'll see that our licensees are trialling solutions of the Communicator [a business product], but that is just warming up for the proper consumer market of smartphones. It's much harder to deliver volume consumer products.
The handheld industry is selling about five million units a year, while the mobile phone market sells seven million a week. It takes time to get everything right if you're going to establish that kind of volume.
Microsoft is one of the largest high-tech companies in the world, and they are aggressively targeting the smartphone market. How serious a threat is it to Symbian?
Microsoft is always dangerous, and always represents a challenge for any company in the market. But to be successful you have to get your product into the market, there's a channel that develops to get to market. Now, who has the channel in the phone market? The handset manufacturers. We have all the phone manufacturers developing products with us.
Our current members between them have over 70 percent of that market, according to industry analysts. They will get the volume to market.
But the Symbian members aren't necessarily exclusive to Symbian -- they could also make Microsoft-powered phones, for example, if that seemed like a better option.
In theory it's possible they could do that, but I think they will only do that if our system demonstrably fails. Since we're delivering everything on schedule, I don't see that happening.
We're focused, we're part of the wireless industry. We're owned by the wireless industry. We deliver a platform for the wireless industry. It's not really a surprise that the leaders of the wireless industry want to work with us.
Is there a sense that that the wireless focus could be a disadvantage? Other competitors with more expertise in the PC field might have more experience with managing users' data, and passing that data between the PC and the mobile phone.
Obviously there is a tinge of an issue with that, because [we are working with] proprietary formats. Clearly Microsoft has a very strong position in the desktop environment. They are the standard. We recognise that and we work with that standard.
But it's the customer who really has the power. It's their data, not Microsoft's. It's their data, and they want access to it. Customers have the ultimate power because they decide to buy or not buy. And one thing they will not stand for is having their data locked up and their access blocked.
While [Microsoft] has the advantage [on the PC], that's not really a full advantage. Going forward, connectivity to the network is the key thing, and so the PC is just one of the things to connect, but your data's going to end up in the network.
With the network, you're talking about a different kind of environment. It's about Java as well as Unix and IBM mainframe and/or windows NT solutions. There's no compelling Microsoft domination in that market.
What do you believe Symbian can learn from the PC and PDA markets?
Remember Symbian came originally from Psion group, from a PDA focus. And we've taken that focus, merged it with our mobile phone focus and, I believe, produced something different altogether in the Symbian platform, which has learnt from both those marketplaces.
And of course we study the market, we understand where our competitors are up to, and we see what are winning propositions in the handheld world, and we try and learn from those as well. Just like I'm sure they'll learn from us.