Tony Dennis looks at the battle between Microsoft and Symbian for the mobile OS high-ground, and the alternatives on offer in the fight for market share
More and more the mobile OS [Operating Systems] wars appear to have turned into a straight fight between Microsoft and Symbian. Other contenders occasionally put their heads above the parapet, including Linux, Brew and even Savaje, but in Europe operators are favouring the two main players. So what has Windows Mobile 5.0 brought to the party and is Symbian fighting back by taking its OS to the middle tier manufacturers?
With its latest OS version (Windows Mobile 5.0), Microsoft is displaying a very clear focus on SMEs [small to medium enterprise] and corporate users. For example, it is aiming at the circa 120 million users of its Exchange email server worldwide. If those organisations upgrade their Exchange software (for free) and migrate to 5.0 compatible devices, then they’ll effectively get ‘Push email’ for free.
Here Microsoft is aiming squarely at the likes of RIM (with the Blackberry Enterprise Server), Seven, Good Technology and Smarter rather than directly attacking Symbian or Linux. These suppliers have been targeting both operators and enterprises with ‘Push email’ solutions that are in danger of becoming defunct. Another key advantage to Mobile 5.0 is that Word Mobile and Excel Mobile are built in as applications, making it much simpler to deal with email file attachments. Why merely view or read such files when you can edit them directly? That’s a clear challenge to suppliers like PalmOne with its Palm based Treo smartphones which have to supply special file ‘readers.
Perhaps the greatest change has been to combine the two separate versions of its mobile OS into one. “It’s all about choice,” David Hooper, enterprise marketing manager for Europe with Microsoft’s embedded devices division, told Mobile Europe. He argues that Windows 5.0 allows for multiple methods of access. It supports a keyboard; touchscreen and stylus or ‘soft key’ input. So devices can now offer single hand operation just like traditional handsets. Additionally Mobile 5.0 supports multiple device formats — such as twist and rotate screens — and enjoys support from at least 40 different hardware manufacturers.
Crucially Microsoft is claiming that it is significantly easier to develop applications for Windows Mobile 5.0 rather than anything else. If it swings developers behind Windows based mobile devices, Microsoft is hoping that network operators and end users will naturally follow. Asked if developing for Microsoft was actually easier, Simon Judge, an independent British mobile applications developer, told Mobile Europe, “Yes, I would agree. I’ve developed for Windows CE since the first version in 1996, plus Symbian and J2ME (Java). Most of my work now revolves around Java and Symbian development.”
Judge claims Microsoft clearly has the third party developer in mind. “Conversely, Symbian tools are in their infancy. Libraries are complex and sometimes undocumented. What can be done with Windows Mobile or J2ME in one line of code can often take tens of lines of code under Symbian,” Judge added. Asked how Java fits into all this, Judge replied, “J2ME [the variant for mobile phones] stands somewhere in between Windows Mobile and [classic] Java. However, J2ME is somewhat limited on today’s phones. It’s easy to program once you have set up a programming environment but it can be frustrating for first timers.”
Symbian is responding to the renewed Microsoft threat by taking its OS to the mass market. According to Symbian’s general manager, Simon Garth, mobile operators themselves will play a key role in making this happen. “Mobile operators are no longer merely passive buyers of handsets, as has happened in Japan, European operators are starting to specify what they want and what they think should be in a phone.” Garth points to Japan’s NTT DoCoMo has adopted a platform approach and has reaped significant benefits as a result. “Creating a standard platform allows it [DoCoMo] to drive down the per unit development costs as the majority of the cost will come from the development of content,” he added.
The snag is that DoCoMo supports two platforms — the other being Linux.
Once regarded as a total outsider, Qualcomm’s Brew environment is gaining some new friends. “Brew is starting to make a move in Europe — particularly in the entertainment sector,” Paul Munford, business development director with PlayerX, asserted. “Java is always going to feature more than Brew — even Stateside. But the whole Brew food chain is starting to look very tasty.”
Perhaps the actual OS will become irrelevant as long as it can run Java/J2ME? According to researchers, Ovum, 80 per cent of all handsets sold worldwide in 2005 will support Java, and the installed base of these handsets exceeds 850 million devices.