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    Symbian aims downmarket

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    David Levin, Symbian’s ceo, has heralded the operating software company’s move into the mid-tier by announcing an increased investment programme that will increase the company’s headcount by a third.

    Levin said the company (recently boosted by increased investment from minority member Sony-Ericsson) was set to increase its cost base from £70 million to £100 million a year and its staff numbers from 900 to 1200.
    “We have achieved market leadership status in the high end market and the question now is how we transition to the wider market,” he said.
    Levin said Symbian had investigated the lowest possible cost at which a handset developer could assemble a phone capable of supporting the Symbian OS at $132 per unit, excluding the radio licence costs, which are too variable to be estimable.
    That number would drop to $80 within five years, he said, due to lowering costs of phone hardware and component costs. This would mean that the total addressable market for the Symbian OS in 2008 could be as much as 200 million phones annually, compared to 59 million “smartphone” units manufactured in 2003.
    Levin said that although the company had made good progress it had a long way to go to achieve its ambition of being a serious platform for the mid-market phone. But he said Symbian’s policy was “fully-funded” and  not “just a piece of [Powerpoint] slideware.”
    One hope for the OS developer is an agreement with Intel and Nokia for the joint production of a reference platform to allow OEMs and ODMs to develop mid-market Symbian phones. The reference platform would address about 75% of what was required to make a phone platform, he said, leaving room for manufacturer differentiation whilst reducing time to market.
    Levin said that Symbian was proving to be the most profitable platform for operators in terms of subscribers downloading applications. Levin said what the industry needed was some level of standardisation, and he paid welcome to the OMTP Group, which has been put together by a group of operators to try and define the handset requirements necessary for mobile devices to deliver openly available standardised application interfaces to provide customers with a more consistent user experience across different devices.
    Levin pointed out that Vodafone live! requires handsets to meet 3,000 product specifications. Different platforms meant increased expense in terms of call centre and customer support, but this has to be balanced against the ability of handsets and operators to develop their own customisation.
    Ovum’s Jessica Figueras said that mobile platform players such such as Symbian should focus on technologies which enable dynamic device customisation and help put a balance back in the industry.
    “We’ve seen enough platform battles in the mobile device space with Symbian versus Microsoft, Microsoft versus Nokia or Nokia versus Vodafone,’ she said.
    The latest battleground focuses on mobile operators’ desire to customise mobile devices, in order to reflect their own service branding and create a differentiated user experience.
    “But a straight fight between operators and manufacturers promises few benefits for developers and enterprises. Manufacturers do not always support them well today, and there is no reason why operators should necessarily make a better job of it.” 
    Figueras believes that “the great customisation debate” has clearly become very polarised. 
    “It is often presented as a zero-sum game, where one side must win at the expense of the other. But this view is wrong and unhelpful. The best outcome is one where a balance between the interests of all of the value chain members can be achieved – not only for manufacturers and operators, but also for developers, enterprises, end-users and platform providers.”
    The most important is the new possibility of “dynamic device customisation” technologies such as over-the-air downloading, firmware updating and device skinning.
    An open approach from the platform providers will open up the market for a range of specialist providers, she argued. Companies like Surfkitchen, Trigenix (now Qualcomm, p8), Bitfone, Macromedia, Redbend, Action Engine and SavaJe play in this space.
    “The big platform providers must and will play an important part in enabling this new model to take place, but their offerings will be seen less and less as the be-all and end-all. A healthy mix of different platform technologies will be active at different layers in the overall platform stack,” Figueras said.

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