Symbian OS 7.0 increases focus on smartphones

From promoting its high-end clamshell PDA operating systems, Symbian is moving decidedly toward the mass market for smartphones with its latest software
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

Symbian, whose operating system is best known for driving sophisticated wireless "communicators", is to make low-end, mass-market mobile phones more central to its strategy.

The company tends to keep a low profile, letting the mobile phone makers that are its main backers take the limelight, but the Symbian OS has continued to quietly spread into new mobile models. And while the hype in the wireless industry has shifted away from pie-in-the-sky futuristic designs to the bottom line, Symbian has stepped up its offerings for more consumer-oriented devices that offer money-making opportunities for handset makers.

The new version of the Symbian OS, v7.0, includes features aimed specifically at lower-end phones, not just communicators. A major step in the operating system, announced on Tuesday at 3GSM in Cannes, is support for Java Mobile Information Device Profile (MIDP), a Java implementation designed to squeeze into handsets that don't pack much memory.

The previous version of Symbian OS supported the PersonalJava platform and the JavaPhone API (application programming interface), which offer more full-featured Java support but use more resources than Java MIDP.

The new OS also supports multimedia messaging (MMS) and enhanced messaging service (EMS), which build on familiar text-messaging features but add graphics, video, sounds or other multimedia elements.

MMS and EMS are aimed less at sophisticated corporate users than at the millions of consumers who send text messages every day. Such messages now make up about 10 percent of network operators' revenues, and operators hope multimedia messages could be an even bigger money-spinner.

Java MIDP is just as focused on the bottom line: phone makers envisage consumers downloading and exchanging Java applications like games or chat clients, adding to the airtime they use.

"It takes about 30 seconds to a minute to download applications," said Morten Grauballe, product manager for Symbian OS 7.0. "People sitting around bored in the train station could get a new application in one minute, and we see teenagers swapping these games. That's a good way of cranking up revenues."

Nokia's 7650, which will arrive in the second quarter, uses version 6.1 of the Symbian OS, but will support Java MIDP. When Symbian OS 7.0 handsets begin to arrive in the autumn, MIDP support will be more widespread.

The new features accompany a shift towards the mass market for Symbian, as it pushes its software into mid-range phones like the 7650 and ultimately, it hopes, into most of the plain-vanilla handsets on the market.

Today even Symbian backers like Nokia and Ericsson use their own proprietary operating systems for their lower-end phones, but Symbian expects that as GPRS and 3G roll out in Europe, Symbian OS's more advanced features will become standard.

"The smartest phone of today will be the dumbest phone in two or three years' time," said Paul Cockerton, Symbian's head of communications. "We are moving from high-end communications down to many of the more mainstream, mass-market devices. Our aim is to get every mobile phone manfuacturer making phones based on Symbian OS, hopefully all their phones."

The mass-market effort got a boost at this week's 3GSM World Congress with Nokia's announcement it will licence the Complete Smart Phone Reference Platform to any mobile phone maker. The platform is a combination of Nokia's Series 60 interface, used in the 7650, with the Symbian OS and processor hardware from Texas Instruments.

Nokia announced last November that Matsushita, which owns the Panasonic brand, would licence Series 60 and Symbian OS Japanese handsets.

Symbian says it plans to stay behind the scenes for now, but expects that the Symbian brand will ultimately become a draw to consumers. "To be successful we need to get the OS into as many phones as possible, but the brands of our customers (the mobile phone makers) are those which represent the significant value," said Cockerton. "To say we're going to brand their market I think would be a wrong strategic move. I believe that over time people will perceive the value of our brand and seek it out."

Symbian's plans hinge conspicuously on the growth and acceptance of more advanced mobile phone networks -- GPRS and 3G -- which will be essential for data-based services and multimedia features. However, those networks have been far slower to arrive than initially planned, and are now only expected to come into wide use near the end of this year.

For now, the company -- like the rest of the European wireless industry -- must content itself with preparing for the eventual arrival of data networks, when competition is expected to heat up. This autumn more Symbian devices using GPRS are expected to arrive, as well as smartphones powered by Symbian OS rival Microsoft Windows CE and wireless-enabled handheld computers from companies such as Handspring and Palm.

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