The Bloor Perspective: Symbian's future, US regulatory demands and spam strategy

This week Robin Bloor and his team of analysts consider Nokia taking control of mobile OS outfit Symbian, Sarbanes-Oxley's affect on market listings and spam as an IT director issue.

This week Robin Bloor and his team of analysts consider Nokia taking control of mobile OS outfit Symbian, Sarbanes-Oxley's affect on market listings and spam as an IT director issue.

There was always likely to be tension when several hardware companies teamed to sponsor a common software platform. But how successful has the process been and what does the fall out now mean for the players involved? The reasons for starting out in 1998 were for the companies involved roughly the same: to defend against the apparently incessant march of Microsoft. That's why several major mobile manufacturers invested in Psion's EPOC child, Symbian.

Six years on, did the plan work?

Arguably, yes. Microsoft has not achieved total domination of the rapidly growing smart phone market nor for that matter the now maturing PDA market. True they are doing quite nicely with some strong and committed licensees but despite a number of solid advances in the platform, we'd still only rate the Windows Mobile operating system product as 'Windows 3.1'. Which, to be fair, was the first, functional mass-market version of the desktop operating system, so this is not faint praise. It also means the threat has certainly not gone away yet.

So what's happening with the hardware companies?

Motorola appeared to change its mind in 2003 when it sold out of Symbian, despite the launch of the A920 Symbian-based 3G phone. It then later appeared to switch camps to Microsoft, with the launch of the MPx200. Motorola has touched on the importance of Linux and Java too, so perhaps it has decided to play the field a little longer before settling down again.

As for Nokia, a company not renowned for allowing others to control its destiny, or being limited from differentiating its products by overly constraining standards, it was surely only a matter of time before it decided to act. The company however has stated its $250m investment, in buying out Psion and taking its holding to 63 per cent of Symbian, is purely to keep the company competitive in the market.

Sony Ericsson has had business user success with its Symbian-based flagship, the P800, and its recently launched successor, the P900, looks like it will be a success with enterprise gadget gatherers too. But even the combination of superb Ericsson radio technology with Sony's strong consumer style hasn't yet produced the range of Symbian-based consumer devices that Nokia has managed.

Fujitsu and Siemens have produced point devices, for point markets, and although stylish, might be regarded by enterprise purchasing departments as a little fashionable. The SX1 looks like it will appeal more likely to iMac users than compared to the more conservative audience of the still stylish but traditional layout Sony Ericsson Px00s.

Samsung launched a wave of smart phones last year at ITU Telecom 03 but took an operating system agnostic approach all the way, with a device for each of the platforms. A dear, late colleague of mine once remarked: "When in doubt, click everything", and this seems to be the route Samsung has taken. Perhaps Motorola is starting to click everything too.

For Symbian, stronger ties to Nokia are no bad thing. Which company wouldn't wish to be closely allied to the handset market leader? To be fair, Nokia has stated the move to acquire Psion's stake won't affect the independence of the licensing of the software platform, nor limits the market.

This is laudable but the move is still likely to affect the plans of the other licensees and perhaps we will see more of them willing to 'click everything'? If so this could be good news for the Linux community, PalmSource and, of course, Microsoft.

The organisation apparently hit hardest is Psion and this will be seen by many as another sad step in the decline of an innovative mobile computing company. However, if the move by Nokia increases the strength of the Symbian platform, even with a single supplier in the driving seat, the legacy of Psion will live on.

*US less attractive?*

European companies with US share listings are asking US regulators to exempt them from US financial reporting requirements. Historically a US share listing has enabled European companies to raise capital from more diverse sources; to raise capital in more diverse forms both in currency and financial instrument; to develop a wider investor base and ultimately demonstrate they are a global enterprise.

The Sarbanes-Oxley legislation among other matters appears to have increased the costs of maintaining a listing on US exchanges. While there may be benefits in terminating a US listing, it appears organisations must continue to file accounts with the Securities and Exchange Commission ad infinitum. The same applies to companies making acquisitions in the US which represent a material element of their worldwide turnover. They would continue to file accounts according to US accounting standards, an additional cost in itself for non-American companies, as well as comply with the additional Sarbanes-Oxley requirements which demand detailed reporting on internal controls.

It is charitably assumed that the legislation did not intend to impose such burdens. The Europeans have proposed some amendments to the legislation. Specifically, they would have the right to drop US reporting obligations and standards two years after making a US acquisition provided they adhere to International Accounting Standard and provided US turnover represented less than 5 per cent of the worldwide turnover in their shares.

*You’re email is mostly junk*

Not the ones you send... of course. Rather, the emails that come in. Once a problem at the consumer level, spam is now a corporate nuisance. So much so that some companies are banning their employees from sending internal emails in order to cut down on time spent dealing with them.

When email first became a business tool, we all touted the enormous increases that it would bring in terms of productivity. But what we did not foresee was that it would actually be a potential time-waster. According to email anti-spam and anti-virus vendor, Black Spider, its customers are receiving as many as 44 spam emails per employee per day - around 60 per cent of all the emails received.

But the problem is worse than lost productivity - spam emails are actually now the favoured form for transmitting viruses around networks. And viruses are a huge problem that take up time hard-pressed IT directors just don't have. According to some sources, anti-virus and firewall technologies are consuming up to 80 per cent of company IT budgets anyway. If IT resources then have to spend their time acting as gatekeepers to the corporate email system, there can be no time left for other more value-added tasks.

Plus, IT directors must be increasingly vigilant as spammers continue to find ways to exploit our personal weaknesses - think of how many people opened the 'I Love You' virus in 2001 because they were flattered to be sent that particular mail. Now spammers are using obfuscation techniques to avoid detection, hiding their messages with HTML code so that it passes filters or including large volumes of text to bypass filters. But there is help at hand. In much the same way as security technology looks for 'accepted behaviour' and adds a fingerprint, hash or signature to a database so that similar behaviour is recognised in the future, email spam and virus filtering technology can be used to weed out suspected junk. UK company Black Spider offers email spam and virus filtering as a managed service, with customers paying a nominal amount per month per employee for their email to be checked for them.

This is not a new problem but it is one that is increasingly causing pain. Both the US and EU authorities are trying to deal with the enormous increase in the amount of junk mail sent but this has so far been proven to be largely ineffective - EU legislation allows for spam to be sent to companies if there is any kind of likelihood at all that someone will want to buy the product offered. That doesn't really legislate against anything. And spam, while originally mainly an English language problem, is becoming more international in nature, with incidences rising rapidly in both Japan and mainland Europe. We haven't heard the last of this.