Windows opening

NOKIA has cause to be worried. In recent months, a small but significant number of enterprises have rolled out mobile applications on Microsoft Windows-based devices. They are deals that strike body blows against the Finnish telecoms giant in its fight with Microsoft to control the phone.

The list of reference customers running either Microsoft Smartphone or Pocket PC based projects is impressive, and growing. In the UK alone, users range from Cap Gemini Ernst &Young (CGEY) to the Wagamama restaurant chain, from retailer WH Smith to North Wales Police. “Ease of deployment and the flexibility of Pocket PC hardware has led us to standardise with Pocket PC and reject other platforms,” says the UK CIO of CGEY, Brian Bodsworth.

For other wireless platforms, read Palm OS and Symbian.

The latter was created in 1998. At the time, the embryonic mobile data industry was worried (with good reason) that one day Microsoft would dominate their sector, and teamed up with UK handheld computer maker Psion to create a smartphone operating system joint venture. Symbian was a strong combination: most of the world’s biggest mobile handset and network manufacturers took a share, including Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola. Suddenly, the chances of Microsoft getting any version of its Windows operating system running on mass-market wireless devices seemed, at best, pretty slim.

But over time, Microsoft has eroded Symbian’s monopoly.

First, Microsoft persuaded the big PDA makers, including Hewlett-Packard, NEC, Toshiba and later Dell, to run their machines on Microsoft’s Pocket PC operating system. That was a fairly easy sell for companies used to making Microsoft-based PCs and servers.

Next, finding itself locked out of the big mobile phone makers, the software giant bypassed them and courted the carriers instead, including Orange, AT&T Wireless and Vodafone. To aid this thrust, it signed up licensees from among the second tier of manufacturers, such as Taiwan’s HTC. Then, in October 2003, came its biggest coup: Motorola quit Symbian and said it was working on a Microsoft-based smartphone.

With the momentum apparently building behind Windows, Nokia made its move to strengthen Symbian’s defences. It made an offer for Psion’s share of Symbian, which would give it more than 60% of Symbian (although less than the 50% of the voting rights). But the plan might be opposed by other Symbian shareholders worried about the prospect of Symbian becoming a Nokia-dominated vehicle, rather than an independent and open operating systems provider. Nokia executives moved to play down such concerns, confirming that Symbian will continue to support the UIQ user interface used by Sony Ericsson, as well as the Series 60 and Series 90 interfaces that Nokia prefers.

If the Nokia/Psion deal goes through (and it remains a big if), analysts are unsure how Symbian will evolve.

“Is this the right thing for Nokia to do? Possibly not,” says Jessica Figueras of Ovum. “The handset industry isn’t shaping up to look like the PC industry as many predicted. Instead, mobile operators are becoming a more dominant force.” The operators, she says, are frustrated by Nokia’s refusal to compromise its brand to allow more customisation to suit their features and brand identities.

However, similar criticisms have been levelled at Microsoft, which wants to keep its Windows Mobile interface as close to the Windows desktop as it can.

In any case, enterprises are more interested in functionality and ease of integration than branding. And although Nokia will carry more clout in Symbian, it is easy to overplay the dominance of Nokia, especially in the high-end devices most likely to lend themselves to large-scale business applications.

Industry figures suggest that around seven million Symbian phones shipped last year, against perhaps just a few hundred thousand Windows based smartphones. But at the upper end, where early adopters from the corporate world are buying, the market is more fragmented, with a variety of specialist manufacturers selling single-application devices.

Moreover, Nokia uses Symbian in a broad range of phones, from business-focused handsets to gaming devices. By no means all Nokia’s Symbian sales are to corporate users.

Away from Symbian, Palm OS-based smartphones outsell Microsoft devices at present. And there are a number of companies developing Linux-based smartphones, which might appeal to corporates keen to undertake their own application development.

Microsoft might, as yet, have only relatively few phone manufacturers shipping devices based on its software, but the idea of compatibility with the Windows desktop – or at least familiarity for Windows users – represents a strong pull for enterprises, says Paolo Pescatore, an IDC analyst. Microsoft could also gain from the view that Windows phones are easier to integrate with other IT systems than its rivals; this belief has appeared to drive sales of Pocket PC devices, which now outsell Palm in Europe.

But, for large-scale enterprise applications, most businesses will call in a systems integrator rather than rely on in-house development. The system integrators will tend to pick platforms based on effectiveness rather than the brand of the OS; they are certainly big enough to maintain development teams for Symbian, Windows Mobile and Palm.

And at the upper end of the market, a strong Symbian will benefit enterprises by providing a greater choice of development platforms. The challenge for Nokia will be to keep the other Symbian licensees happy and maintain a choice of handsets with the functions businesses need. This will ensure that enterprises maintain their interest in Symbian.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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