Has Nokia's Symbian romance cursed UIQ?

You wait for some hot news on smartphone software -- well, I do -- and then several bits come along at once. This week has seen some seriously fascinating movements in the field -- but what does it all mean for your mobile?

You wait for some hot news on smartphone software -- well, I do -- and then several bits come along at once. This week has seen some seriously fascinating movements in the field -- but what does it all mean for your mobile?

Smartphone software is a bit, well, unloved. It's not sexy iPhone Web apps, or big budget BigPond TV. It just sits there, on your smartphone, doing its stuff, giving you the ability to do mobile e-mail and such like, remaining relatively virus free, and no-one notices what goes on with it.

But this week has been a real hotbed of news in the smartphone software world.

The main players in today's drama are Nokia (which makes smartphones), Symbian (which makes the operating system that sits on smartphones) and UIQ (which makes a user interface platform that sits on the operating system that sits on the smartphones). Ready? Here we go.

One of the stories that caught my eye was Motorola's decision to take a half-share in UIQ, the mobile user interface company spun out from smartphone OS people Symbian, from Sony Ericsson. Apparently, a twosome is not enough either -- Motorola and Sony Ericsson are looking for a third company to join in.

An interesting move if ever there was one. UIQ has previously been largely associated with touchscreen devices and has a relatively tiny market share among its peers. Despite the fact UIQ has always been open for licensing to any mobile maker -- Motorola was a licensee before the acquisition -- it has struggled to ship in great numbers.

A quick glance at UIQ's Web site shows the range of devices the software can be found on and, aside from Sony Ericsson and Motorola, there are only two other licensees -- the now defunct BenQ Mobile and Arima (who?).

UIQ has a blessing and a curse in the shape of its former owner, Symbian, whose operating system it runs on. Symbian is found on millions of handsets worldwide: according to the company, there have been 145 million shipments of phones packing Symbian software. Good news for UIQ, you might think -- millions of operating systems just looking for its platform.

Alas for UIQ, most of those have been on phones made by Nokia, Symbian's chief cheerleader and shareholder. Despite the fact Symbian is owned by a consortium of companies -- Ericsson, Nokia, Panasonic, Siemens, Samsung and Sony Ericsson -- it has always been regarded as a Nokia shop.

And those millions of Symbian shipments have largely been thanks to Nokia placing the OS on its high-end handsets, rather than a concerted adoption effort by a range of manufacturers.

If UIQ software had been clasped to the bosom of Nokia in the same way the Symbian OS has, we'd been talking about its 145 million shipments too. But it hasn't. Nokia has its own user interface platform, S60, which has -- surprise, surprise -- achieved shipments topping 100 million and left no space for UIQ.

So, for UIQ to fly without a Nokia love-in, it would need cross-industry support, but it's hard to imagine Symbian getting out from under the Nokia shadow and, consequently, taking UIQ with it.

But, you might say, Motorola's getting involved -- that's cross-industry support right there? And yes, to a certain extent, it is. However, Motorola has really nailed its colours to the mast on smartphone OSes.

It announced last year it intends to have half of its devices running on Linux within the next couple of years. Add to that it already has a couple of Windows Mobile smartphones in the market and you begin to wonder where UIQ and Symbian can fit in.

So, its best hope for mass-market adoption is presumably under the wing of Sony Ericsson. And, as the Symbian and Nokia partnership has shown, being associated primarily with a single manufacturer can help and harm in equal measure.

Where's a third shareholder when you need one?

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