Big in Japan

By David Coursey  |  Posted 2004-07-15 Print this article Print

Bancroft was refreshingly candid with the companys financials and projections, freely admitting that Symbian has a virtual nonpresence in the U.S. market. Thats mostly because our cellular network is at odds with world standards and is dominated by the cellular carriers. In other parts of the world, customers buy a handset that can be used with any of several carriers, creating greater competition and hardware innovation. In the United States, a customer buys a carrier-specific phone and while the carriers try to compete on phone features, they individually dont buy enough devices. The total U.S. market isnt large enough to get interesting devices built for U.S. technical standards. In fact, the only really cool devices in recent memory to ship here before going overseas have been the Treos, alas an asterisk in total global sales volume.
So, when Enderle and I asked questions about Palm and Microsoft devices, Symbians Bancroft described us—in a nice way—as being "very West Coast." Which I suppose is like a teenager telling mom and dad how uncool they are in a way that doesnt get the kids car keys taken away. Looking at the new phones he brought made me feel so uncool—especially when I couldnt even turn some of them on.
One of the things we talked about is what it would take for Symbian to become well-known and a customer preference in the States. Enderle made a big deal about this, talking about corporate customers standardizing on Symbian OS devices and writing applications for them. While this might happen someday—though I am not holding my breath—the nature of the U.S. market works against any OS branding that isnt Palm or Microsoft, and they may not end up being all that important, either. Why? Both Palm and Microsoft bring customers and (supposedly) mobile developers to the table, people who might buy a device with one of those logos stenciled on it. But Symbian has no such embedded customer set, and as Bancroft will be the first to tell you, is a nonexistent brand presence here in America. Furthermore, in the United States, carriers do everything they can to hide the handset manufacturer names as much as they can, so getting them to make a big deal about the software on the handset seems a remote possibility. Here, people buy Verizon or Sprint PCS or whoever first and the hardware brand, if they think about it at all, is a distant second. New research shows that Symbian is likely to dominate the market for high-end smart phones for the rest of the decade. Click here to read more. I expect U.S. corporate customers will, to the extent they build wireless mobile applications at all, develop for particular carrier networks and the feature sets they offer. Sure, these handsets may run a Symbian OS, but the API could be so carrier-specific or even device-specific that customers wont be able to mix and match hardware, at least not across carriers. In Europe and Asia, I get the idea that cellular devices are becoming become more PC-like generic platforms, able to run a variety of applications from third parties, without regard to which carrier provides the wireless access. Meanwhile, American will remain an underdeveloped wireless nation for the foreseeable future. Bandwidth that is becoming available in Asia—in the 200 to 400 Mbps range—will be slow to arrive here. As will third-party applications and truly interesting wireless devices. The blame for all of this goes to a long-ago decision by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to limit wireless competition and give preferential treatment to the old wireline carriers, the Baby Bells. That, plus a decision to use American instead of global technology, will continue to hold us back for many years to come. And while Symbian will be here—eventually smart phones will catch on in America as they already are elsewhere—its coolest products, at any given point in time, will always be an ocean away. For more insights from David Coursey, check out his Weblog.

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One of technology's most recognized bylines, David Coursey is Special Correspondent for, where he writes a daily Blog ( and twice-weekly column. He is also Editor/Publisher of the Technology Insights newsletter and President of DCC, Inc., a professional services and consulting firm.

Former Executive Editor of ZDNet AnchorDesk, Coursey has also been Executive Producer of a number of industry conferences, including DEMO, Showcase, and Digital Living Room. Coursey's columns have been quoted by both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and he has appeared on ABC News Nightline, CNN, CBS News, and other broadcasts as an expert on computing and the Internet. He has also written for InfoWorld, USA Today, PC World, Computerworld, and a number of other publications. His Web site is

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