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    OS = open systems?


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    With segmentation and diversification increasing at the user equipment level, operators are being faced with hard decisions on software platforms. Is there real operator interest in Java and Linux, or do the numbers from Symbian and Microsoft reflect what’s really on operators’ minds, Keith Dyer asks.

    “Things are getting more complicated in mobile. Operators have to introduce new applications on a wide variety of platforms. They are looking to reduce the number of platforms they are supporting,” says Didier Diaz, vice president of product marketing at Access.

    So why, then, at a point when operators are looking to reduce their platform support, is Access launching another OS? And Access isn’t alone, Savaje is also gearing up to make 2006 the year when it pushes through some real agreements to get its all-Java based OS onto handsets.

    The answer varies depending on who you talk to, but the companies themselves are adamant that the operators would welcome open standards, non-proprietary operating systems for high and mid tier phones.
    Access, whose NetFront browser is in around 210 million handsets globally, used 3GSM to launch its ACCESS Linux Platform (ALP), the latest evolution of Palm OS(R) for Linux.

    The goal is to have ALP become the platform of choice for the development of high volume, feature rich smartphones and mobiles. Access and PalmSource (now a wholly owned subsidiary of Access) expect to make the ALP Software Developer Kit (SDK) available to its licensees by the end of this year (2006).

    Explaining the motivation for the development, Access’ cto Dr Tomihisa Kamada said that today application suites are huge, with several million lines of source code, and are very heavy for handset vendors.

    “With the demand for multi-tasking of applications, executed in parallel, to implement that nicely you need a flexible multitasking OS like Linux,” he said. Diaz says the development is being made in response to operator requirements.
    “Operators are asking for platforms with native APIs,” Diaz argues, “and the two current OS choices [Symbian and Widows Mobile] are controlled by a single company in each case.” (Before anyone from Symbian gets in touch,  to update us on your multi-vendor ownership structure, please note these are Diaz’s words not Mobile Europe’s!)

    “Many operators see Linux as a solution.” DIaz claims. “It’s consistent openly available code, and a host of developers are familiar with it, so that  means they definitely view it as a solution to the problem they have,” Diaz continues.

    Not that other people haven’t tried already to develop a mobile Linux OS, most notably Motorola, which Access hints spent $200 million on development. Diaz acknowledges that Linux doesn’t necessarily have an easy journey ahead.

    “The problem is Linux is not a platform yet in the mobile space. Some vendors have tried to go all the way develop their own platform. But we are now moving to the transition phase, beyond the design phase.”

    Most important in the development of this transition phase, Diaz claims, has been a specific UI for mobile on top of a Linux 2.6.12 kernel. Access is calling this UI and application framework MAX. The MAX framework offers five-way navigation and two dedicated keys, as well as touch-screen and stylus input mechanisms. The system will also offer ongoing support for currently developed Palm OS applications, although probably not for any applications developed straight to hardware.

    And the developer has enlisted the support of some impressive names. ALP’s launch came with a host of endorsements, from Texas Instrument, Intel and Freescale on the chip side. From LG and Samsung on the handset side, and from NTT DoCoMo and Telefonica Moviles on the operator side.

    Java based mobile operating system developer Savaje is a bit further down the road. It has a renewed focus for 2006, and will have commercial devices soon.

    “We’re back,” chief operating office George Grey says. Boosted by a deal from Chinese OEM/ODM GSPDA to produce a wireless PDA based on its OS, and by LG’s commitment to trial the technology, Savaje has said it is back in the market to do real business in 2006, following a self-imposed “stealth” phase.

    But Grey says the company has new investment, and has finally moved from technology development to a customer facing business. In recent times the ceo, vp marketing, vp business development and other roles have all been new hires.

    And the OS is ready and able to do the job of reducing development costs for OEMS and ODMs, and increasing revenues and data and content service take-rates for operators, Grey said.

    Savaje’s claim for its OS is that because it is an all-Java based, from the kernel to the UI, it operates much more efficiently with the mainly Java-based applications in the mobile market. Java is also more attractive to developers, Grey says, because it is a much more widely and more easily understood environment.

    Its other great attraction is that it allows applications to take on the look and feel of the operator UI on the handset, without further integration or development. Development time and costs to meet operator specifications, are greatly reduced, Grey claims. And the operator saves its time producing its new specs every six months. Adopting a native Java OS also means OEMs don’t need to develop their own proprietary OS, as they currently do, for their non-smartphone handsets. Further, rather than optimise a Java application for the OS, as the device platform is already Java, the application is essentially pre-optimised.

    Of course, the drawback for Savaje OS is the dominance of Symbian, and, to a marginally lesser extent Windows Mobile, in the market. Grey argues that as Symbian is so important to Nokia, and Nokia has such market power, a new OS meets inevitable resistance

    Savaje has been funded previously by Orange and Vodafone, indeed Vodafone has continued its investment. And Grey admits that some of the operators’ past motivation has been to use Savaje as a threat to Nokia and other vendors to toe at least some of the line on personalisation and customisation. But now, Grey claims, with Savaje OS based products set to become reality, that is about to change.

    LG’s commitment, though, is unlikely to bear fruit much before the end of 2006, even later if it decides to skip directly to 3G development.
    So both of these rival OS developments will have their work cut our as both Symbian and Microsoft developments have moved on apace.

    Symbian says that it in 2005 shipments of phones based on Symbian OS totalled 33.9 million, which represented year on year growth of 136%, the fourth consecutive year in which Symbian OS phone shipments have grown by more than 100%. It also grew revenues to 73%. And there are now 60 Symbian phones shipping, of which 36 models were launched in 2005. There’s also an increasing developer universe around the OS, with over 4,500 third party commercial applications available.

    The company also announced a partnership with Freescale for a single core reference design, incorporating the S60 software.

    The only downside, as ceo Nigel Clifford admits, is that Symbian is still expensive and relatively exclusive compared to the rest of the market. 

    “The number remains small relative to the size of the overall handset market,” Clifford says. “Symbian’s strategy remains focused on driving deeper and wider adoption of Symbian OS both for advanced mobile devices and for lower cost, higher volume phones. We have made a number of steps recently, including license price adjustments, the 3G reference design announcement with Freescale and product developments, which are all supportive of our ambition to address volume markets.” In other words — to drive down the cost of a license, and reduce development time. 

    Another market lever for Symbian is the increasing adoption of Nokia’s S60, which must sit on Symbian OS, by other handset vendors. And now that preference extends as far as actual operator choice. One recent example is Vodafone’s announcement that it and Nokia will collaborate to “strengthen the S60 software platform’s role in Vodafone’s device portfolio.”

    The companies said Nokia and Vodafone will develop a Vodafone-specific software complement on top of the S60 platform. This deal seems to works well for all sides. Vodafone gets the control it wants of the platform, Nokia gets S60 license fees and Symbian gets its share too, as S60 can only go where Symbian goes too.

    If Vodafone decides that it will prefer S60 as its software load —and it hasn’t said the deal is exclusive, only a preferred route — then more handset vendors are looking at licensing Nokia’s software if they want to talk to Vodafone.

    Mike Pauwels, Sony Ericsson’s senior manager of global product marketing, says Vodafone”hasn’t said it doesn’t like UIQ” (UIQ is Ericsson/ SonyEricsson’s UI environment for Symbian phones). Asked if he could envisage Sony Ericsson licensing S60 to meet operator demands, he says, “We haven’t made any announcements yet!”

    But that Nokia sees the Vodafone announcement as significant is evidenced in this section of the announcement:

    “The collaboration also includes the expansion of the licensee base and increased portfolio penetration through open roadmap governance and establishes a strong independent brand position for both the S60 software and the supporting developer activities. In addition, Nokia and Vodafone are working jointly to promote independently licensable reference designs from semiconductor vendors to enable shorter time to market for new S60 devices.”

    Meanwhile,  Microsoft’s determination to present itself as an open source of operating software for wireless enterprise and smartphone devices continues.

    Pieter Knook, senior vp mobile embedded business and communications sector, says that with over 100 operators (Symbian says it has 250) shipping Windows Mobile products, the technology has arrived. The company was seeing double digit growth in the number of available mobile devices, he says. He also expects 100% growth in the number of Windows Mobile connected units in the installed base, which would mean about 10 million units by the end of June 2006.

    Echoing Symbian’s Freescale announcement, there are also efforts in conjunction with Texas Instruments to incorporate the OS onto a single chip, single core, solution, which would bear fruit in about 12 months or so, Knook claims, although that seems an aggressive timeline, according to one senior source at a semiconductor company we talked to.

    Knook says that Windows Mobile can piggy back on the huge installed base of Exchange servers and Office software in the market. This means it may well become a de facto choice for enterprise. And indeed Vodafone, at the same time as the S60 announcement, said it would be using Windows Mobile for enterprise push email.

    So perhaps what we are really going to see is a division of the market on  smartphone/ low end —  enterprise/ mass market lines, with operators taking a view on each OS in turn for each segmentation they make. Access and Savaje are both certain the race is not already run.