One day, the story may be told of why developers tool house Metrowerks pretty much abandoned two of its best customers—Palm and Symbian.
But when it is told, I dont expect the story to be told by a smug Microsoft smart phone manager. Call me skeptical, but the idea that Microsoft, with the most bloated platform in the mobile business, is going to be able to sneak in under the big, powerful phones that Symbian creates just sounds like fantasy.
But how did this fantasy arise?
Whenever a new software platform arises, theres a mad stampede of innocent and/or naive programmers who want to create the killer app for it. With Palm, the stampede is more or less over. There are thousands of applications for the worlds most popular PDA, and a huge number of those will work on the phone edition. Even so, last week in Munich, PalmSource CEO David Nagel made all the right noises to encourage European developers.
The interesting question is whether Symbian, at its developers conference this week in London, will be able to make a similar impact.
I had a bit of a go at Palm recently, and Nagel was honest enough to admit, at the Munich Devcon, that my criticisms pretty fairly reflected what he heard from many analysts outside North America—that Palm was a bit late to the party and Metrowerks had pretty much bailed out of the room.
That gap has been filled, unlikely though it may seem, by IBM. The new Cobalt OS from Palm has a Palm OS Development System (obviously called PODS), which is a totally free, open-source development platform jointly designed by PalmSource and IBM. Now Version 6.1, the “phone edition” of Cobalt, is available, and were just a week away from seeing a nice new Treo 650 and Tungsten T5—not to mention a mystery phone from Samsung—on which to run it. So the reconciliation can begin.
By one of those coincidences that makes you realize quite quickly that its no coincidence at all, Metrowerks will be a subject for discussion at the Symbian developer thrash. A similar thing happened in its case. Metrowerks had its eye on a different ball—but with a different solution. Where Palm found someone else, Symbian (through its parent, Nokia) was big enough to pinch Metrowerks staff.
But does that mean that the two phone platforms are free of the past and ready to move on?
Does it even mean, as ABI Research seems to think, that Microsoft can run off with the prize while Palm and Symbian fight over it?
: Will Microsoft step into the breach?”> I cant see it. “Developers being dissatisfied with the support they get? Sounds like situation normal to me,” commented Nagel when I asked him about the high level of dissatisfaction expressed by developers for all mobile platforms. Hes not wrong. But when it comes to mobile software, the developers have a real point.
The problem with Symbian, they say, is dreadful documentation. The trouble with Palm is the lack of support from Palm or PalmSource or Metrowerks. And the trouble with Linux is the unmanageably large API library, the incompatibility of different implementations, and the focus on servers.
But does this mean that Microsoft can step into the breach, as ABI Research predicts?
Ill happily concede that, when it comes to Windows Mobile, Microsoft code is much, much tighter and better than the desktop version of Windows. Most developers seem to think so, anyway. They even praise Microsoft for making some kind of attempt to reconcile its various platforms.
But you dont have to know too much about the wireless platforms to know that Palm applications are a tiny fraction of the size of the other two main ones, and far more efficient. And you need spend only half an hour with developers to find out that Symbian smart phones are smaller than Palm smart phones in complexity, size, power and everything else. The bulk of the Symbian market is barely smart at all, and almost nobody downloads software for that platform.
Microsoft smart phones may have a chance of knocking Symbian off its perch—but only at the top of the platform, not the bottom.
Meanwhile, the bulk of wireless application developers will continue to write for Java, because thats what you find on most phones. And Esmertec, not Microsoft, will rule the roost for the next two years.
Maybe, one day, all phones will be so smart that you can dual and triple boot the things, and run all varieties of mobile code. When that happens, Ill ground my private jet (a round-bellied Vietnamese pig) and take up Nokia-tree pruning. But Ill bet that even then, Microsoft will be limited to running on the biggest ones.
Read Guy Kewneys other recent columns about trends in mobile and wireless technology.