Symbian heads 'to top' of smartphone boom

A report projects strong growth for high-end mobile phones, with Microsoft's market share trailing behind Symbian, and Linux bringing up the rear.

A report projects strong growth for high-end mobile phones, with Microsoft's market share trailing behind Symbian, and Linux bringing up the rear.

The mobile phone industry will sell 150 million smartphones in 2008, 15 times this year's sales, with the Symbian OS leading the smartphone operating system market, according to a report published this week by ABI Research.

Mobile phone makers sold about 10 million smartphones in 2003, a figure that will quadruple this year and continue steady growth through 2008, ABI said on Wednesday. The figures are contained in the report Wireless Handset Software: The Evolution of OS and Middleware Solutions and Their Impact on Next Generation Wireless Devices.

Mobile phones have traditionally used software developed by the phone maker and closely tied to the phone's hardware, but that situation is being changed by the advent of smartphones, which generally use a standardised operating system provided by a third party. A related factor is the growing success of "middleware" such as Java on mobile phone handsets: this is low-level software that allows programs to be run on a variety of devices.

The firm projects that the Symbian OS, which grew out of the EPOC operating system originally used on Psion handheld computers, will win the most smartphone market share by 2008, largely because of wide support by mobile phone makers. Most major handset makers, including Nokia, Samsung, Siemens and Sony Ericsson, have licensed the Symbian OS and also own stakes in the company.

The Symbian OS' biggest appeal for handset makers and telcos such as NTT DoCoMo is the ability to customise the software's functionality and appearance, ABI said. "With increasing competition and high churn rates, operators have felt the need to differentiate their products," said ABI analyst Kenil Vora, in a statement.

Microsoft's Windows CE will remain in second place in four years' time, ABI said, mainly appealing to large businesses who want smartphones to act as an extension of the PC. The software is largely the same in functionality and look-and-feel regardless of the handset manufacturer, which should appeal to enterprise CIOs, ABI predicted.

Linux will be the third-biggest choice, according to the research, appealing to mobile phone makers such as Motorola who are uncomfortable with the dominance of either Microsoft or Nokia, Symbian's largest shareholder. The software is highly customizable and inexpensive, but is not as standardized as the Symbian OS, the report said, arguing that "fragmentation of Linux will continue to stagnate its growth."

Java has helped to make simple programs portable among non-smartphone handsets, with more than 100 million Java 2 Mobile Edition (J2ME)-enabled handsets shipped in 2003, according to ABI's figures, but the middleware "remains too fragmented to be mass deployed as a standard middleware among all devices." Qualcomm has signed up 20 network operators to deploy its Java alternative, called BREW, but so far no GSM network has come on board.

ZDNet U.K.'s Matthew Broersma reported from London.