Symbian chief executive David Levin kicked off the company's annual developer conference on Wednesday with a call to arms, with Microsoft as the clear -- if unstated -- public enemy number one.
"No one company can lay out all the answers and get it right the first time," Levin said. "One size doesn't fit all in this market. There are one billion people using mobile phones this year. This is not the PC world."
Microsoft, with its Windows CE software, has been slowly working its way into the handheld computer market for years. But this year the competition is due to heat up as Microsoft introduces devices that compete more directly with Symbian.
Two new versions of Windows CE arriving this year are designed for voice-enabled handheld computers and mobile phones with PDA functions, respectively called Pocket PC Voice Edition and Windows Powered Smartphone 2002.
Symbian has been around for four years as a joint venture between the UK's Psion, which supplied the EPOC operating system on which Symbian is based, and major mobile phone manufacturers such as Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola and most recently Siemens. But while Microsoft-powered devices tend to have a uniform user interface and to carry the Windows name prominently, Symbian-powered phones carry no Symbian branding -- this is left to the phone makers and network operators.
Now Levin, who took the chief executive post earlier this year, is stepping up the rhetoric to Microsoft-like levels. "We will put the Symbian OS into every phone," he declared.
At the conference, Symbian touted the linchpins of its strategy for selling smartphones to the masses, including 3D games, Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), built-in digital cameras, and productivity applications.
Upcoming Symbian devices from Sony Ericsson and Nokia are much more consumer-focused than such efforts as Nokia's Communicator or Ericsson's R380. They will sport flashy industrial design, colour screens and smaller form factors.
"The largest revenue opportunity is the consumer market, and the business user is a consumer," said Paul Cockerton, Symbian's head of global corporate communications.
On its side, Symbian has the economic and distribution muscle of the handset makers, who sell to a market many times bigger than the PDA market, and have avenues into both the high street and the wireless network operators.
However, the fight is far from settled. Microsoft has unique access to the corporate market through its software business, and Pocket PC has made headway in corporations partly because the devices are manufactured by major PC vendors, notably Compaq.
The network operators are also a wild card, committing to no single operating system vendor. MmO2, for example, is making a Pocket PC Phone Edition device called Xda for launch later this year.
"It isn't yet a clear path for Symbian," said IDC analyst Tim Mui.
The shadow of Microsoft was noticeable everywhere at the Symbian conference. Microsoft employees handed out Pocket PC 2002 CD-ROMs to attendees as they walked from the train platform to the venue. Microsoft even timed its own mobility developer conference for last week, coinciding with Symbian's event.
Besides the Xda, Microsoft's Smartphone 2002-powered Z100 will also be shipping this year, from UK handset maker Sendo.
For developers, there is not yet a clear winner, forcing them to continue developing for multiple software and hardware platforms. Fathammer, which makes a 3D engine that can be customised for use in different games, makes versions for Linux and Pocket PC as well as Symbian OS, and also fine-tunes the versions for different hardware platforms.
"We have to put our eggs in all of the baskets," said Fathammer project manager Ville Vaten.
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