Symbian will smart over mid-market phones

Symbian lusts after mid-range success, but the market isn't ready for a long-term relationship

Going downmarket can be a smart move. Take Burberry -- once the clothing of choice for the upper classes, today its garments keep the chill off the chavs across the land while it rakes in the cash.

So when Symbian eyes up mid-range feature phones, the mobile operating system maker is thinking with its wallet. Two in three phones sold today fall into the 'feature-rich' category, with a basic onboard camera and small range of proprietary applications. It's a potentially lucrative market for Symbian, now back on right track following the turmoil of Nokia's failed take-over.

But actually pushing its software out of the high-end smartphone sector and into more every-day phones is a tricky proposition for Symbian.

For a start, most low-end users don't give a hoot about mobile operating systems, so the cachet Symbian enjoys with top-end users won't apply here. And most network operators couldn't care less about the OS either -- they don't see beyond the revenue stream.

Symbian promises manufacturers that an open operating system encourages more third-party applications. Developers and operators are assured that the people who buy a Symbian phone will spend more than average on extra software. Symbian boss David Levin even showed off some stats to prove this at Tuesday's Symbian Expo.

But the mid-market is a very different game. The average mobile user simply doesn't download extra database applications and file managers. They're used to a phone that's a closed box of tricks, and that won't change even if they move onto 3G.

And if a manufacturer does want to get independent applications into its hardware, it can just add Java.

Symbian may have a real struggle persuading vendors that a basic smartphone running its operating system -- with the licence-fee, the royalty costs and the expense of testing -- is better than a top-end feature phone.

Symbian says that its relationship with Intel is another bonus. But, as Texas Instruments wasn't shy of mentioning, Intel is stuck on the blocks when you look at the smartphone chip market.

The speculation is that it could take until 2006 for Intel and Symbian to create their 3G reference platform and at least another year, probably two, before a manufacturer takes the platform and builds a commercial device.

If Symbian's mid-market ambitions are dependent on its work with Intel, as senior executives were saying at the Expo, they seem doubly doomed to failure.