Platform Pugilists

By Carmen Nobel  |  Posted 2003-03-03

Platform Pugilists

After years of working to establish the smart phone as a viable platform, Microsoft Corp. and Symbian Ltd. seem to be garnering enough support to conduct an old-fashioned operating system war in a new frontier.

While some industry experts say competition in the space encourages innovation and carrier adoption, others say multiple standards in the space complicate the environment for third-party software developers. In addition, some fear competition could spur the kind of tactics found anti-competitive in the desktop operating system environment.

"The fight of the Internet age is now moving a little bit into the cellular arena. This is like the old Sun [Microsystems Inc.] versus Microsoft battle," said Orem Nissim, CEO of Telmap Ltd., in Herzilia, Israel. Telmap makes navigation applications for cell phones.

The London-based consortium Symbian has been the leader in the smart-phone niche with its Symbian OS, largely because of its lineage. Symbian, established as a private, independent company in June 1998, is owned by Samsung Electronics Co., Ericsson AB, Nokia Corp., Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. (Panasonic), Motorola Inc., Psion plc., Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB and Siemens Enterprise Networks LLC, all of which have announced various levels of product support for the platform.

Symbian OS gained additional support late last month when electronics manufacturer BenQ Corp. announced plans to develop handsets for 2.5- and third-generation wireless networks worldwide. The first Symbian OS product from BenQ is due in the third quarter, said officials at BenQ, in Taipei, Taiwan.

Meanwhile, London-based phone manufacturer Sendo Ltd. last month announced a developer program and testing service for a Symbian OS-based handset that the company plans to launch later this year. Sendo made waves in the smart-phone industry last fall when it announced it was switching camps from Microsofts Smartphone platform to Symbian OS. In December, Sendo sued Microsoft, charging misappropriation of trade secrets. Last month, Microsoft asked a federal court to dismiss the suit, but the case is still pending.

Microsoft, for its part, has been busy targeting carriers to garner support for its cell phone platforms. Late last month, the Redmond, Wash., software maker announced that Orange S.A. will be the first carrier to implement its Mobile2Market initiative, which helps carriers quickly offer a range of applications. With Mobile2Market, operators will be able to offer business users a means of quickly and easily reviewing Microsoft PowerPoint slides on mobile handsets, in addition to checking e-mail, using mapping technologies and playing video games.

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Some analysts believe the competition is healthy.

"Historically, it has usually taken two players in any business area to create a new product category," said John Strand, CEO of Strand Consult, a Copenhagen, Denmark, consultancy specializing in the mobile industry. "One player alone will often not make it. But by entering the market for mobile terminals, Microsoft is helping establish the category of mobile terminals that has enormous potential."

Strand said Microsoft fills a niche with its Pocket PC Phone Edition, which is designed for devices slightly larger than traditional phones and has had better luck in the United States than the Smartphone platform has.

"The problem with the ones that look like phones is that the screens are so tiny," said Andrew Langer, manager of regulatory policy at the National Federation of Independent Businesses, in Washington. Langer uses the Siemens SX56, a Pocket PC Phone Edition device that runs on the AT&T Wireless General Packet Radio Service network.

"I wanted something that had a phone and a PDA and wireless Internet, which looked like a PDA and ran on the Pocket PC platform," Langer said. "I do all my scheduling on it, and I take notes on meetings. My only complaint is that the network isnt everywhere."

But some developers said its difficult to support myriad operating systems in what is still a niche market. In addition to the Symbian OS and Microsoft platforms, there are cell phone versions of Linux, which has support from companies including handset maker Motorola. "The cellular market is lacking harmonization," said Telmaps Nissim. "I think developers have a hard time these days because they have to start choosing. The choice becomes harder."

Multiple operating systems can complicate the creation of applications and supporting software, according to some third-party developers.

"For the benefit of the smart-phone environment, it is better if we have fewer choices in operating systems," said Cristiano Pierry, chief product officer of Action Engine Corp., also in Redmond. Like many third-party software developers, Action Engine is adapting its products to all operating system environments so that enterprises and service providers do not have to make a choice.

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