Making Cell Phones Talk Same Language

Nokia's campaign for open mobile architecture draws wait-and-see attitude.

Nokia Corp.s multicompany initiative to make cell phone platforms compatible with one another via an open architecture has the potential of making communication easier for customers. But critics say the initiative smacks of a Microsoft Corp.-like desire on Nokias part to control the industry.

The initial members of the initiative, which Nokia announced last week at Comdex here, constitute carriers and handset makers, including AT&T Wireless Services Inc., Cingular Wireless, NTT DoCoMo Inc., Fujitsu Ltd., Motorola Inc., Nokia, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Sony Corp., Ericsson AB, Toshiba Corp. and the Symbian Ltd. consortium.

"These companies will drive and support an open mobile architecture for the whole of the communications industry," said Jorma Ollila, chairman and CEO of Nokia, in Espoo, Finland.

The initiative, which is still vague, will be based on current mobile industry standards and protocols such as Extensible HTML, Multimedia Messaging Service, Synch ML, Java and the Symbian operating system. It is also based on Global System for Mobile Communications, the network that prevails in Europe and is starting to get more of a foothold in the United States with the recent adoption by Cingular and AT&T. There is no clear time frame for the platform that will be born of the initiative.

Nokia is spearheading these efforts. The company announced last week that it will start licensing some of its core source code—the Series 60 software platform, which includes an HTML browser and back-end software. Series 60 runs on the Symbian operating system.

Ollila said the goal of the initiative is to open up the mobile phone market because customers will be more likely to adopt a platform that everyone supports.

"The business environment is like an ecosystem," Ollila said. "When all things are in balance, there is room for everyone."

But not everyone was invited to join the initiative, which so far lacks any software companies other than Symbian. Most notably missing from the list is Microsoft and its Stinger operating system. This is largely due to the fact that Nokias "license our client-side and our back-end software" approach closely resembles Microsofts "license our Stinger software as well as our back-end Mobile Internet Server software" approach.

Officials at the Redmond, Wash., company saw similarities between its strategy and Nokias, but company officials said they are not intimidated.

"Theres a difference," said Ed Suwanjindar, product manager for the mobility group at Microsoft. "We have some degree of expertise in the management of data. Their back-end properties are hazy. Its as though theyre arguing about how to make the next version of DOS work when were about to launch Windows."

Palm Inc. also was not invited to join the initiative, although Palm OS has the potential to succeed in the smart-phone market if Handspring Inc.s Treo phone takes off when it is launched next year. Handspring officials doubted Nokias attempt to influence the industry by licensing its software to everyone will succeed. "There isnt an opportunity to be the Microsoft of the cell phone," said Jeff Hawkins, CEO of Handspring, at Comdex.

Industry observers, though, say that Nokia seems to be trying to do just that. The initiative is based on Symbian, an operating system launched by a consortium of Nokia, Motorola and Erics-son but primarily supported by Nokia. Ollila said that while the Series 60 source code is based on Symbian, the initiatives platform would be operating system-independent. At a Nokia-sponsored dinner meeting here last week, several company executives said that part of the initiatives goal was to get the whole industry to adopt the Symbian operating system.

An initial version of Symbian designed for handheld computers failed to take off, but this initiative could give it new life in cell phones.

"I think Symbian is becoming a Nokia operating system," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc., in San Jose, Calif.

Potential customers said they wont be happy if the "open platform" goal backfires into a fight between Nokia and Microsoft, which seem to be trying to achieve control in the mobile industry.

"Consumers and businesses arent in any mood for territorialism," said Fran Rabuck, practice leader for mobile computing at Alliance Consulting, in Philadelphia, and an eWeek Corporate Partner.

Others say an open platform is a nice idea, but—Nokias source code licensing aside—theyll believe it when they see it.

"I cant get excited about a press release," said Erich Berman, advanced technology consultant at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., in Milwaukee, and an eWeek Corporate Partner. "Initiatives are launched on paper all the time, and then they just roll off the side. I want to see some concrete results."