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Smart phones not so smart: Siemens

PC-centric thinking will not work in the mobile phone world, Siemens' head of mobile phones said this week.

PC-centric thinking will not work in the mobile phone world, Siemens' head of mobile phones said this week, criticising past attempts to build computer-like functionality into phone handsets.

The one-size-fits-all vision behind wireless PDAs and Microsoft's smartphone initiative, a vision carried over from the homogenous world of PCs, is doomed to remain a niche in the wireless market, said Peter Zapf, president of mobile phones for the German electronics giant, speaking at the Symbian developer conference in London.

Several big players are currently competing to establish themselves in the fuzzy area where computing and wireless devices come together: Microsoft with its Windows CE-based devices, PalmSource with Palm OS-based wireless handhelds and smartphones, Symbian's smartphones and even a category of corporate wireless email devices pioneered by Research in Motion with the BlackBerry.

Symbian licensees have seen their first flush of success in the past three months, with sales of Nokia's and Sony Ericsson's smartphones shipping more than 800,000 devices in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, according to Canalys; this was more than the total number of data-centric PDAs (638,650 shipped) and was more than all other voice-centric mobile devices combined.

Zapf pointed out that Siemens had successfully entered the mobile phone market a couple of years ago and went from zero to being the No. 4 mobile phone maker in the world, and said the company has big plans for smartphones--typically defined as handsets with computer-like capabilities.

Siemens will this summer launch its first smartphone, the SX1, based on the Symbian OS, with a built-in camera, radio and MP3 and video players. The handset represents a new departure for Siemens: while it is customised for the entertainment market segment, with specific built-in features and a sleek design, it can also run any application written for Nokia's Symbian-based Series 60 interface. Series 60 is a customisation of the operating system, specifying screen size and other technical details, that is used in handsets from Nokia, Siemens, Samsung and others.

Personalisation is key
Unlike PCs, which thrive on their use of uniform, interchangeable hardware components, mobile phones must be individualised for particular types of users, Zapf said. He compared this thinking to the way Audi and VW cars use the same chassis, driving costs down, but are marketed to completely different buyers.

"The one who is buying an Audi is thinking he has the best technology in the world. The one who is buying a VW thinks he has reliable technology that is lower-cost because of high volume," he said. "What is inside (a handset), such as the kind of microcontroller, is not really an issue for the end user. They want location-based services, or a particular kind of MMI (man-machine interface)... this is how the handsets are differentiated."

This philosophy is far different from that of Microsoft's with its Windows CE-based Smartphone 2002, which gives all Windows-based smartphones the same MMI look and feel, and emphasises similarity to a PC, with mobile versions of Internet Explorer, Outlook and Word.

Symbian devices also synchronise with PCs and run enterprise applications, but the marketing emphasis is equally on the individual device's style, Zapf said. "There's a big difference compared with a PC, and that is that a PC has never been a personal device," he said. "Unlike a phone, you do not carry your laptop around with you everywhere you go. People use their mobile phone not only for business, but for different things in their daily lives."

Leaving the PC behind
Unlike Microsoft, Symbian's licensees are de-emphasising PC connectivity, with the logic that with mobile phone sales dwarfing PC sales annually, many wireless users are likely to be more familiar with a mobile phone than with a PC. "We are targeting today's phone users and bringing them upwards step-by-step to smartphones," Zapf said. "We are making things comfortable for them, and not making them go to a Windows machine to download software, or some crazy idea like that."

Rather than focusing on one particular "killer app", handset makers should be emphasising that smartphones, with their open operating systems, will be able to stave off obsolescence, Zapf argued. "I'm not a fan of the killer app. The open platform allows for a range of applications, location services, e-payments, picture messaging, video messaging, movies. It hasn't yet been finalised," he said.