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Inside Quartz: Symbian's new Palm-killer platform

And to what extent are the Symbian buddies really friends?

Analysis Need Symbian ever produce anything? Given the London stock exchange's excitement when Symbian announces an alliance, and its indifference when it announces a product, the company can be forgiven for cancelling any further products, and simply arranging some more meetings. But IDC for one has noticed that Quartz has the capability to clean up in what we now call the PDA market. IDC's Jill House thinks that "if I was Palm I would be beside myself with panic. In Europe, where there's a good wireless infrastructure, the competition is pretty much over", reports ZDNet. House also lands a few good blows on Symbian's US ambitions, but since she’s talking Apocalypse Soon, let's start with Quartz. Quartz communicators, as Symbian likes to call them, are fat Palm-sized PDAs with built-in telephony. Unlike the Crystal class of smartphones, which are phones with a Trojan PDA, these are really Palm-alikes, with a built-in phone. Thanks to Bluetooth, which you'll be able to spark a phone call through voice activation. But, for the impecunious, they can be used as pocket phones thanks to one of these trailing earpiece devices that more cancer-wary Europeans are beginning to adopt. Symbian also has a third class of devices, called Pearl, which we gather will be closed-shop smartphones which don't allow access to generic, off-the-shelf Epoc applications. On closer examination, Quartz starts to get very, very interesting. First, it'll be run through the same channels as handsets today: the razor-and-blades model by which the networks subsidise the cost of the device. Secondly, and you remember you read it here first, both smartphones and communicators give you the PDA functionality for free. Any suspicions that Symbian might pull its punches to accommodate a potential partner like Palm have been dispelled. Apart from its AOL-like row of icons across the top of the screen, Quartz is a faithful... er... shall we say tribute to the PalmOS UI. It's upright, not landscape. It has identical menu and application launching semantics, and there's no built-in file manager. Cheekily, the Quartz DFRD has hard quick launch and navigation buttons pretty much where Palm put them, too. Significantly the Quartz DFRD doesn't mandate a pen input mechanism (there's the obligatory soft keyboard of course). Instead you have the appropriately fuzzy-sounding Symbian Front End Processor Architecture, and this will let users change their input systems in the Quartz Control Panel. At CeBIT this week Symbian demonstrated the devices using the Jot system from CIC, which signed up to include Jot in Symbian SDKs yesterday. It still leaves the door open for licensees to use Palm's Grafitti. So the message to Palm seems to be clear enough: join us, or get run over. Now this couldn't have come at a more tricky time for Palm, which is in its pre-IPO purdah, and ever since negotiations with Symbian were first revealed, has been understandably coy about the relationship. We said back in October, and we still reckon, that Palm is skating on pretty thin ice here: that its technology assets don't amount to much more than Graffiti and its UI look and feel. We reckoned "It only takes Wall Street to take a closer look at PalmOS and discover that very little of it will be at all usable in two years time for the IPO valuation to come clattering down. So there's your reason for Palm executives keeping quiet -- they just think we haven't noticed..." So unless Palm is going to shun the integrated appliance market completely -- and forever be one part of a 'two-box' combination -- it’s going to have to hook up with somebody at some time, as PalmOS evidently won't cut it on its own. But back to Quartz. What's less than clear is the who and the when. Psion and Motorola have officially been signed up, while Ericsson has officially not committed to producing Quartz. That shouldn't be taken as significant -- much of the development was in the Symbian Lab in Ronneby, which is Ericsson’s home turf, and Ericsson execs led the cheerleading at the Symbian Developers' Conference last week. Curiously absent so far has been Nokia, which kept a very low profile at the SDC last week, popping up only to rubbish last autumn's Palm-Nokia announcement to anyone within earshot, we're reliably informed. Nokia is rumoured to be working on half-VGA devices. As for timing, Symbian indicated last week that with the first SDKs for EpocR6 shipping in mid-year, devices would appear in 2000. Reuters got a different impression this week: as Motorola and Psion told the press not to expect devices until Q2-2001. Given how much the Christmas shopping spree for phones can make to a balance sheet, someone had better get their story straight. Nor we hear, is everything quite sweetness and light amongst the Symbian brothers. Ericsson you'll recall, put out a provocative press release announcing its tie up with Microsoft late last year, only to follow up with a hurried "clarification" a few hours later. Ericsson moles tell us that internally, employees received a notification of the announcement shortly before time of the original, worded identically to the later version, and deduced that the first public version was put out simply to spoil Psion's lunch-hour. Psion Computer itself (not a Symbian shareholder) responded with a buddy agreement with Motorola this year. Motorola is an investor in Palm of course and Palm already uses Motorola's antique 680x0-based Dragonball chip, so some smart money must be on Palm eventually swallowing its pride, licensing Quartz, and discreetly shifting to Epoc on M-Core. Like we wouldn't notice... Well, phone politics simply wouldn't be phone politics without this kind of fencing. Incidentally, we couldn't help noticing the reaction from what often proves to be a reliable indicator of what Redmond really thinking -- the 'spontaneous' responses to ZDNet Feedback Forums. Within 25 minutes of a Jesse Berst Anchordesk extolling Quartz-like integrated devices, almost every objection to the buggers had been posted -- without a single repetition. Small screen size, the cancer scare, dodgy connectivity... they’re all there. So clearly someone's worried about Quartz... ®

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