Symbian – the battle for your mobile

Back in 1999 the British company Psion was poised to take on Microsoft with a mobile operating system which was making Bill Gates quake in his boots – at least, that’s what a report from a naive young BBC reporter said. The mobile internet was coming – and whoever made its operating system could reap the kind of megaprofits Windows produced from the desktop.

The Symbian platform, launched the year before by Psion in conjunction with Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson, helped make the hand-held computer maker one of the dotcom wonder shares for a brief period – until the world woke up to the fact that it was not going to be quite the powerhouse predicted by the BBC reporter.

That young reporter (okay, it was me) looked pretty daft as Psion gradually evaporated, selling off most of its business including its stake in Symbian. But today Nokia has shown that it still believes the operating system can be a powerful weapon which will shape the way we use the mobile internet. It’s bought up the half of the business it doesn’t own – but what is really significant is that it is taking Symbian open-source, and putting its assets into a non-profit foundation.

Already most of the superpowers of the mobile world have signed up to this foundation – and at a press conference at London’s Somerset House executives were ranged across the stage, uttering all sorts of hyperbolic phrases to sum up what all this meant. It was “epoch-making”, “exciting”, “ground-breaking”, and the new open Symbian had a mission, according to its chief executive, Nigel Clifford, “to be the most widely used platform on the planet.” From next year, the existing software will be available royalty-free – currently a licence costs around $5 per handset – and a completely new open-source platform is promised, though not until 2010.

So what’s all this about? Symbian has actually done just what Microsoft feared back in the late 90s, winning a 60% share of the market with 200 million handsets featuring its software. But the fact that it has not proved a huge moneyspinner for any of its owners shows two things – the mobile internet has been very late in arriving, and open-source has changed the rules of the software game.

So it’s Google, not Microsoft, which is now in Nokia’s sights. The launch last year of Google’s open-source Android platform was an even more significant event for the mobile industry than the arrival of Apple’s iPhone. It looks as though Android is falling behind schedule, with no handsets imminent, but Google’s – and Apple’s – arrival in the mobile world has given a huge boost to software development for handsets.

Nokia wants all those smart young software developers to be working with Symbian and is confident that open-source will make that happen: “It will create a gravitational pull that no developer will be able to ignore,” says Kai Oistamo, boss of Nokia’s handset division.

So the battle for your handset is under way – but it may pass many people by. Just about everyone knows whether their desktop runs on Windows, Mac OS or Linux – but who knows whether they’ve got a Symbian phone? In the new open-source world the operating system may be just as important – but its name will no longer be in lights.

Source BBC – Rory Cellan-Jones

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