Eye2Eye: Wireless hero tunes in to the future

Last week, David Potter, the man behind Psion and the Symbian consortium, met with ZDNet editor Richard Barry to shed a little light on how the wireless world is set to change a billion lives

When David Potter walks out of the Psion offices behind London's Oxford Street next summer, he will, most likely, be surrounded by people using a technology he dreamed of nearly 20 years ago. In fact, if the analysts and observers of this industry have any foresight at all, this South African-academic-cum-business guru could put a little bit of his dream in the palms of up to a billion people worldwide.

It was Potter who came up with the idea of bringing together telecoms technology companies to form the Symbian group, a consortium made up of Ericsson, Nokia and Motorola -- to name but a few. Its aim: to create a standard for mobile wireless operating systems and to enable a mass market for Wireless Information Devices. But it has been a slow process and only now, as we enter the spring of 2000, are we starting to see the first Symbian devices trickle out of technology shows and exhibitions.

And while much has been written about Potter's future -- Bill Gates penned in a memo that the Psion chief, because of his role in Symbian, was the greatest threat to the Microsoft empire -- this is not a man with his head in the clouds.

"Symbian and the devices it will run on will change the way people communicate and interact in a very fundamental way... That's very exciting to me," says Potter, who is sitting opposite looking relaxed and tanned after his yearly pilgrimage to the Bahamas.

Indeed, since Potter "wandered around the city looking for funding" for his first computer project nearly 20 years ago, he's been excited a few times. "Of course, our first organisers -- simple 8-bit technology -- were very interesting, and you would be amazed at how many Japanese companies copied, very closely, what we did."

But it is Symbian, made up of the incumbent players in the telecoms technology arena, that gives Potter a buzz these days. In a style typically his own, Potter describes why this 10-year-old venture, still fires the passion that started it all off. "First of all, you need to understand Metcalfe's Law. It states that the value of a network to the user goes to the square of the number of users on the network. So if you're the first guy on the network, it's not much use, but if there is 100 or 1,000, or soon to be a billion... Isn't that amazing? Metcalfe's Law is very important.

"What we are talking about here in Symbian's case is a network, with some elements missing as yet, but some of the major parts are there, like the network operators," he continues. "Take the mobile voice phone environment -- there are some 400 million users in the world and by 2003 that will stand at a billion users.

"What we're trying to do with Symbian is connect all of those users to the Internet through WAP, small browsers and a whole lot of other technology. And, of course, we are not involved in all of those areas. No one company is going to control all of that, including the mighty Bill. He's not going to control infrastructure of communications and information, which is absolutely massive."

Here lies the difference between the approach Potter champions and his rivals. He is not interested in controlling the whole party. Allies will take care of the parts Symbian wasn't designed for. But let's be clear, Potter knows that Symbian will work, and he's also aware that when he does wander onto Oxford Street in the summer of 2001, all those Wireless Information Devices the teeming crowds will be using, will be running on Symbian.

So let's reiterate: one billion mobile users by 2003. And most analysts predict they will be running on Symbian.

"Yes," confirms Potter, "it is a special position to be in, I suppose. As I said, it's very exciting."

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