Nokia Leads Cell Phone Compatibility Initiative

Nokia Chairman Jorme Ollila announced in his Comdex keynote a multicompany initiative to make cell phone platforms compatible with each other via an open architecture.

LAS VEGAS--In his keynote here at Comdex Monday, Nokia Corp. Chairman and CEO Jorme Ollila announced a multicompany initiative to make cell phone platforms compatible with each other via an open architecture. But critics say that the initiative smacks of a Microsoft-like desire on Nokias part to control the industry.

The initial members of the initiative include both carriers and handset makers, including AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless, mm02 (formerly BT Cellnet), NTT DoCoMo (in spite of the fact that its iMode platform is wildly popular in Japan), Telefonica Moviles, Vodafone, Fujitsu, Matsushita, Mitsubishi Electric, Motorola, NEC, Nokia, Samsung, Sharp, Siemens, Sony Ericsson, Toshiba and the Symbian consortium.

"These companies will drive and support an open mobile architecture for the whole of the communications industry," Ollila said. "It gives a solid value proposition to content providers. ... We know that the best way to enable new value-added services is through a seamless experience."

The initiative, which is still vague, will be based on current mobile industry standards and protocols such as XHTML, MMS (multimedia messaging service), Synch ML, Java and the Symbian OS. It also is based on GSM (global system for mobility), the network that prevails in Europe and is starting to get more of a foothold in the United States with the recent adoption of Cingular Wireless and AT&T Wireless.

"I know some of you are thinking, Oh great, another initiative," Ollila said. "More promises, more fluff … but wheres the beef?"

His idea of beef is that Nokia 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 would be more likely to adopt a platform that everyone supports.

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

Microsoft, Palm among the missing

But notably missing from the list of the initiatives members are Microsoft Corp. and its Stinger operating system and Palm Inc. and its Palm OS. Both companies have said that an expertise in data gives them a leg up on traditional cell phone makers when it comes to wireless data services.

Qualcomm Inc., which owns the market for CDMA technology that prevails in the United States but not in Europe, also is missing from the list; the initiative is focused on GSM, which prevails in Europe.

Ollila acknowledged that these companies had not been invited to join the initiative.

"We did not have discussions with these companies," he said in a press conference that followed his keynote speech. "We wanted to avoid the one-year discussions that we might have run into."

Potential customers observed that Nokia seems to be snubbing some major industry players, and that Nokias series 60 package of handset platform plus back-end software platform is very similar to Microsofts plan to market its Stinger operating system with its Mobile Information Server.

Adding to the skepticism is the fact that the initiative is based on Symbian, an operating system launched by a consortium of Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson but primarily supported by Nokia. Ollila said that while the series 60 source code is based on Symbian, the initiatives platform will be operating system independent. At a Nokia dinner Monday night, however, several company executives said that part of the initiatives goal is to get the whole industry to adopt the Symbian OS.

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] has zero chance in PDAs," said Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at the Gartner Group in San Jose, Calif. "I think theyve become captive to Nokia."

Potential business customers are not convinced by the initiatives stated goal of an "open mobile architecture."

"Its a European, Japanese Symbian platform that will compete with U.S. platforms," said Erich Berman, advanced technology consultant at Northwestern Mutual, in Milwaukee, Wis.

Ollila said that additional companies will be welcome to join the initiative now that it is launched, but Microsofts initial response indicates that it probably will not be one of them. This could be problematic because mobile customers who want wireless access generally want wireless access to Microsoft applications specifically.

Drawing a line in the sand

"One interesting thing about the Nokia announcement is that it seems to draw a line in the sand to keep the mobile world a separate entity," said a spokeswoman for Microsoft in Redmond, Wash. "With the growing importance of wireless data to the enterprise--and the potentially lucrative market the enterprise represents the wireless industry--it will be interesting to see how they address this audience."

Industry observers said that customers wont be happy if the "open platform" goal backfires into a fight between Nokia and Microsoft, who 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.

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 Northwestern Mutuals Berman. "Initiatives are launched on paper all the time, and then they just roll off the side. I want to see some concrete results."