As the hysteria surrounding the formation of Symbian Ltd diminishes, a clearer picture is emerging of the logic behind this hugely significant, and wholly unexpected deal. And it isn’t, as many people had hoped, an anti-Windows alliance. Symbian burst onto the stage last week as a co-operative joint venture between the software division of UK-based […]
As the hysteria surrounding the formation of Symbian Ltd diminishes, a clearer picture is emerging of the logic behind this hugely significant, and wholly unexpected deal. And it isn’t, as many people had hoped, an anti-Windows alliance. Symbian burst onto the stage last week as a co-operative joint venture between the software division of UK-based Psion Plc and the three biggest mobile phone companies in the world, LM Ericsson, Nokia Oy and Motorola Inc. Suddenly, serious global players in the technology sector had joined forces to promote Psion’s EPOC 32 operating system, seemingly in direct competition with Microsoft’s Windows CE. The deal was immediately seized upon by a the anti-Microsoft lobby as a call to arms. Here, at last, was an alliance with sufficient corporate muscle to tackle the biggest bully on the block, Microsoft. But Symbian has said it wants no part of such wishful thinking. It’s not about beating Microsoft, they are a partner of ours, says Juha Christensen, Symbian’s vice president of marketing and sales, it’s about creating new classes of device – wireless information devices. And because these devices will share data with the Windows- dominated world of the desk top PC, this will fuel demand in both markets, he says. And to reinforce the point, Symbian is not promoting itself as an investment vehicle for its shareholders to make a killing in the operating system market. It wants to be seen as a creator of a new, de facto standard for wireless data devices in which all manufacturers can participate.
By Alex Sloley
The concept confirms the origins of the joint venture, the closest parallel to which would be the GSM standard for digital mobile phones, around which Nokia and Ericsson have built so much of their success. And it is interesting to see Motorola, which was slow to catch on to the demand for digital phones, being late to the party once again. Because Motorola currently has no equity holding in Symbian, a fact which is being attributed solely to a delay in the paper work. Meanwhile Psion holds 40%, in exchange for its software assets, while Nokia and Ericsson each hold 30%, bought for cash. The long term plan does include a flotation of the company, but with sufficient funds available from the big players already on board, Symbian has no intention of handing out more share capital. Instead, all other manufacturers of wireless data devices will be invited to share exactly the same licensing terms for the EPOC operating system, regardless of whether they hold shares or not. The terms are $5 per smart phone and $10 for a more sophisticated device. This is a highly competitive rate (estimates for a Windows CE license put the equivalent cost in the high twenties) and it adds substance to Symbian’s stated purpose, namely the task of fostering an industry standard to accelerate market acceptance of new devices, all of which can communicate across a common platform. What we are trying to avoid is a scenario where people from say Phillips and Siemens are sitting next to each other on the plane, only to discover that one has negotiated a better deal than the other. This isn’t the way we want to do business, says Christensen. And in this spirit of mutual cooperation, Symbian will host monthly technology meetings with representatives from all its major licensees in the hope of generating improvements to the basic operating system. Licensees will also be free to tailor the code to their own devices, giving scope for an individual corporate look and feel. But while Symbian is wisely steering clear of a public confrontation with Microsoft, its unlikely to have the playground all to itself. Bill Gates has publicly outlined his visions of a digital future dominated by portable, personal computing devices which communicate via wireless data transmission. And so the most interesting part of this whole deal is that tiny Psion Plc’s EPOC 32 operating system was considered to be not just better than Windows CE, but so much better that companies as savvy as Ericsson and Nokia have risked a head on collision with Microsoft by adopting it. And no matter how much Symbian plays this risk down, the risk is there. When Windows CE was launched, and immediately adopted in the palm top computer format by giants such as Compaq Computer Corp and Hewlett-Packard Co, the writing was on the wall for Psion. In an uncomfortable historical parallel with Apple Computer Inc, Psion’s demonstrably superior operating system looked as if it would be steamrollered into insignificance. But Gates’ desire to make Windows CE applicable to so many different markets has proved to be a pivotal decision. EPOC 32 made its debut in the latest Psion palm top computer, but according to Simon East, an ex-Psion man and now Symbian’s Vice President of Technology, it was designed from day one to be a wireless operating system, tailored for extreme robustness, low battery drain and configured to run on power friendly ARM chips. All key factors in the mobile phone environment. And all of a sudden, the decision made years ago by Psion, to focus EPOC so tightly on the wireless market, looks like the smartest thing it ever did. á