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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Symbian Smartphone show...... a mixed bag

I find "smartphones" a bit of a conundrum to be honest. Personally, I quite like the idea of software extensibility in theory, but I simply cannot be bothered to think about buying, installing or using 3rd-party software. Sure, I try out bits & pieces of software for a "professional" point of view, and I watch other peoples' demos (eg the various VoIP clients recently), but I can't be persuaded to dedicate any time to the vast bulk of it.

I've used Symbian, Windows and Palm devices in the past, and don't have any particular preference or axe to grind. As my personal "data" device, I'm currently using a WinMob-powered T-Mobile MDA Vario, largely because Nokia was late to market with the E-Series and I wanted a QWERTY/WiFi device earlier in the year.

I don't think I'm unusual in this aversion to smartphone software, either. Apart from a small group of "device enthusiasts" I see no direct massmarket demand for installing 3rd-party software on phones, apart from the occasional game. I don't see any signs of young mobile users showing off capabilities they've newly installed, rather than the capability "it came out of the tin" with.

(Warning: I'll probably offend a lot of readers here). I have a nagging feeling that people who enthusiastically "pimp" their phones with aftermarket software are in a similar category to car modifiers.

Instead, I think smartphones are all about "what comes out of the tin". Smartness is there for the benefit of operators, manufacturers, enterprises and 3rd-party service providers, not for end users. Most people "take what they're given".

It would be different if there was fantastically-simple way of getting new software, similar to clicking on a link on a website & installing a browser plug-in (think Adobe Flash, or Skype or MSN or Yahoo Messengers), or via some AJAX-type mechanism. But this absolutely, positively has to work across 70%+ of handsets in a given country. Viral stuff on the web works because people tell all their friends & just assume they can access it - you don't say "oh, and you can only use this if you've got XYZ operating system".

So, I found the Symbian show an exercise in contradictions.

At one level, I think high-end OS's are essential for a lot of future operator / service provider usage cases. Development & installation of operator custom UIs and flagship applications, support for multi-tasking, future frameworks IMS applications (haha, maybe...) and so on. I think "good" WiFi handsets need a smart OS. Enterprises may want to install mobile versions of corporate applications, or VoIP/IP-PBX clients. As phones move to becoming "intelligent IP endpoints", I think a decent OS and UI platform becomes more important. Symbian will benefit from this trend, as will Microsoft and various types of Linux.

And, clearly, Symbian is doing a decent job here. A lot of the recent Nokia devices (especially E-Series and N-Series) are capable, with great pre-installed applications. Vodafone and Orange have shown commitment to the platform, as DoCoMo has done for years.

I had a long chat with the person in charge of the IP networking bit of Symbian OS, talking about SIP and other matters, and it looks like they're really thinking clearly about this - for example, how to deal with multiple SIP applications running concurrently. The company is also pitching the notion of "bearer mobility", enabling applications to understand what type of connectivity (WiFi, cellular etc) is being used, and act accordingly. In my view, this is absolutely critical, and not many people are yet talking about it - many in the industry still nod their heads to the ludicrous notion that "people don't care what network they're connected to, they just want seamless handover". Well, some people might not care in some instances, but applications certainly do. BT gets this, and now so does Symbian. And, interestingly, Symbian isn't putting a UMA protocol stack or other bits in the OS, but leaving it up to their licencees and underlying chipset guys to be bothered if they really want to.

All this is good, worthy, technical stuff. And there were some decent new phones from LG and Samsung, breaking the "only Nokia, DoCoMo & SonyEricsson make desirable Symbian devices" rule. And there were a lot of people from "the right players" around - Skype, Google, and even Microsoft.

But some of the top-level messaging from Symbian is cringe-worthy. Even leaving aside the nastiest branded "conference shoulder bags" I've ever seen, some of the output from the press conference left a sense of disconnection between the company and the real marketplace. There was no comment on IMS or FMC as key driving trends persuading operators to adopt smartphones, but instead a pitch which seems to focus on the user benefits of "smartness", when I have to believe that most existing Symbian users neither know, nor care, that their phone has a smart OS.

There was a frankly risible pitch about "the smartphone generation" and how young kids with smartphones in "leapfrog economies" would drive a trend that would replace PCs. Funny how the famously-advanced Korean kids seem perfectly happy with high-end featurephones, isn't it? Or how Japanese "smart OS" devices are locked-down to 3rd-party applications.

Hilariously, this point was made using statistics about smartphone usage from the same discredited Nokia/ICM survey I singled out as being nonsense earlier in the year. Even more amusingly, that survey was conducted among a base of PC users, as it was done via the web, not via phone.

There was another stat about an installed base (ie cumulative shipments) of about 80m Symbian devices. Personally, I'd be surprised if more than 50-60% were still in use (got an N-Gage? still use it?). And a prediction of 30% of phones having a smart OS in 5 years' time (with more than half of these sold in these mysterious "leapfrog economies").

During the PR conference, I asked the CEO Nigel Clifford what proportion of Symbian users were prepay subscribers, and if the company had a specific strategy to target that part of the marketplace, beyond just lowering handset costs. It appeared that I was the first person to ever highlight this rather important demographic split in the company's customer base. Important because prepay phones usually aren't subsidised, and because such customers often have different expectations about the types of software and services they use.

To be fair, Clifford also told me that the company would consider porting its OS to non-cellular platforms - in may view a critical factor if it wants to participate in FMC. Converged operators will support a mix of products & services based on cellular, WiFi-based, and wired (eg PCs, set-top boxes) connectivity, and will want some applications & services to run across multiple platforms.

Overall, I came away with the sense that Symbian will probably continue to grow in tandem with various emerging telecom/Internet trends - but in spite of its overall strategy and messaging, not because of it.


alex said...

I can mostly agree with this.

However, about old phones not being in use anymore, a leading Java game developer told me: "old phones are going nowhere, we still have to support most of the old models for new games".

While individual models may have failed in the market and are not in use anymore, this doesn't affect volume numbers, well, exactly because those models have not sold well in the first place.

And precisely because people hardly download applications to their phones, they don't get outdated like PCs, where new applications (and OS releases) drive PCs to the garbage bin.

But I agree with your main point that the % of smartphones in use is very small on global scale (<5%), and the % of people who download smartphone OS based applications is extremely small.

I also agree that the notion of mobile "leapfrogging" PCs is fiction today.
Whether it could happen in the future, is an interesting topic for speculation beyond this blog post.

Jorge L. Arienza said...

Couldn't agree more...

I would add that Symbian would make sense for manufacturers and/or operators enabling and ecosystem of applications that might be embedded in the smartphone.

Average user is not interested in downloading sw but Operators/Manufacturesr would be interested in ship smartphones with 3rd party applications.

Fully agree that for mass market the web IS the platform for mobile applications.

I will blog about this post in El Observatorio de Internet Movil (in Spanish, sorry).

Congrats for your excellent blog!

Paul Jardine said...

I think I agree with all your points, I just came to a bit of a different conclusion. The Web browser model is a far easier way to install software and has to be the future for 3rd party mobile apps.

I just don't think there's enough benefit to going the Symbian route, if you're talking about Web downloadable or Web-based applications. Windows and Linux already made the move in to the mobile device space, and that will bring hordes of developers and applications with them.
While Symbian continues it's orgiastic self-congratulation at how it has enabled the smartphone generation in 'leapfrog economies', the barbarians are sweeping across the plains and will soon start for Rome.

It may all be a little less dramatic than that...in the end.