Microsoft chairman Bill Gates was back on familiar territory in February 2002 – trying, without apparent success, to cosy up to senior executives at Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications group.
His pseudo state visit recalled unhappier times. In early 1998, Microsoft bosses held talks in Scandinavia with their counterparts at Nokia and Ericsson about installing a version of the Windows operating system (OS) on future mobile phones. Nokia and Ericsson declined, accepting instead a rival offer from David Potter, chairman of Psion. Joined by Motorola of the US, they announced the formation of the Symbian wireless OS venture. Days later, Gates emailed his now famous memo to Microsoft staff warning them that "Symbian is bad for us, no matter what".
Ever since then, he has been trying – mostly in vain – to drive a wedge between Symbian's founders. Microsoft did manage to strike an unlikely wireless application partnership with Ericsson in late 1999, but that ended abruptly 18 months later. However, in the days leading up to the 3GSM World Congress, the annual wireless-industry shindig in Cannes, Gates was back in Scandinavia on a fresh charm offensive, meeting what he termed ‘key people' at Ericsson to discuss the future of the industry.
It seems to have got him nowhere. At 3GSM, Microsoft did unveil fairly significant alliances with Intel and Texas Instruments. The partners will develop platforms for so-called ‘smartphones' containing many of the building blocks for an advanced handset, including applications software, processors and flash memory. But the comments of Gates' marketing minions in Cannes spoke volumes: the platform, they said, will be adopted by lesser electronics-device makers, such as Compal of Taiwan. "We want one of them to become the next Nokia," said Microsoft hopefully.
By 2005, Symbian will probably run on more than half of all new mobile phones – and Microsoft, for once, will have to settle for second place.