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Symbian founder on mobile past, present and future

Why Skype's a chimera and why the iPod is great

How important is timing? In 1999 or 2000, we seemed to think that Symbian had a huge competitive advantage by being several months' lead over the rivals…

The systems integration problem is so huge that dealing with it takes a surprisingly long time, even if you have all the experience in the world. We're coming up to November 2004, and that's the 10 year anniversary of when I began to write the [Symbian OS] code. When I started, I said it wouldn't get into a stable system on a cost basis until 2001, and that included the phone segment.

We were a couple of years too early, even then. Even now it's showing up for mid-range phones and is now starting to deliver sensible quantities: Nokia shipped 10 million Symbian phones, and that's a lot. Our good friends at Palm used to get excited when they shipped two million.

There's so much more to a phone that the technology.

What really happened in that period was the unbelievable uncertainty in the value chain. With location based services, things are coming to an end; WAP is showing a bit of life; Java is coming to phones, but it's still nothing to write home about.

WAP, the paradigm of browsing on a phone wasn't one that was going to go anywhere, and of course they oversold the system dramatically. You could have a 640 by 480 screen and have the same content available even if you messed about with it but it's still not the right metaphor for a phone. You want a lot of things you can get on the Internet on your phone translated as a service, piece by piece.

You know, I used to think you could convert a lot of things to work well on the phone, but I'm older and wiser, I think. For example, making a phone a browser and an mp3 player. Each of those things are a lesser thing and you end up with what we call a 'spork' - you end up with a spoon and a fork. It's no good as a spoon and no good as a fork, but it's got both things.

The reality is that trying to push everything into everything just doesn't make sense. We'll see an unfolding of more things like the iPod - focused at a particular consumer solution. Everything doesn't go into there. Where you can break out groups of functions - the phone and the camera may work for some segments but not others; some might never want it, or might never use it. As we get more and more digital, all this complexity has to be tamed in a way that the consumer can access it.

People are trying to solve the computer problem, not the human problem, which is aligning the whole value chain. Everyone is fighting each other left, right and center - when they should be focusing on delivering a service for a customer. No customers ever expressed the wish that they wanted WAP.

So what we've done at IssueBits is focus on a service, clearly the customers want to answer questions on their mobile phones, so we do that really well. We make sure it's easily accessible and easily viewable when you get it back. That's the way to bring in the next level of services.

But we're seeing non-Symbian smartphones with features that we never thought we'd see, like the Sony Ericsson 700s - removable media, gigapixel cameras and Bluetooth. Isn't that good enough for most people?

They are! 2G or 2.5G has carried value through. In terms of the radio, it's all integrated into that OS. And there's hell of a value to staying on that platform. There's a lot of engineering in 2G and 2.5G, and a lot more is required to leave it.

But as you get into 3G, that problem reverses, because there is so much complexity that you can't manage. For example, you have to have fallback to GSM, and do CDMA. There, the cost value falls apart and it's much better to get a Symbian OS phone. DoCoMo weren't coping with a proprietary OS for 3G; they've licensed Symbian and now they are very happy.

Isn't there cost pressure, and Symbian phones are more expensive to make?

Not really. 3G adds the costs, and Symbian doesn't add much more. Nokia has Symbian in the middle range and it will push down. The 6600 will go where the 2200 is today.

Won't a Java phone won't be significantly cheaper?

Perhaps once they've got a proper, clean cut version. But they've evolved it over time without being able to claw back features. AWT was replaced by SWING and they're both still in there. So it's a very big system.

Standards tend to be bad when they're arrived at in a higgledy-piggledy way, like Microsoft and Java. Symbian was arrived at in a very clean way. Then there's all the other rubbish you have to put on top of them.

Java's value, which I'm a great fan of, is being able to run objects anywhere. It's a distributed world. But Java is too slow for running the low-level stuff and it has a problem where it's not in control of its memory. It can only clean up memory. You don't have a control process, so it has to do garbage collection in a real time environment. If you run out of memory, you're dead. That's a fundamental problem which Symbian doesn't have. [Symbian announced a real-time capable version of its OS last February - ao]

But people talk a lot of twaddle about it because they don't know what they're talking about.

You simply don't see Linux cutting it?

There's as much missing as there is in it. Motorola is trying to do that - but there's a huge amount to provide, it's hard to catch up from where Symbian is, it's well ahead of MS with all the communication stacks; you have to put all that in there.

The proposition remains consistent in that a standard for the next generation of mobile phones is a good thing;

But the demand for 4GB iPods has surprised everyone - critics said it was rotten value and it wouldn't sell. And two or three years out, phones will have 4GB of storage…

But if you think of user getting access to a service, what's the real possibility that a phone manufacturer is actually going to give you the whole package? There's the iTunes software, there's synchronization that works, there's the easy to access menu, the stereo headphones, the iTunes store and shop, the distribution of the songs - all that's got to be good. Maybe it will take ten years to get together, but it's a long process.

We as technologists remember our favorite things, not the whole product. For us to be the early adopters we'll put up with it because we like these. So what if there's a bit of sync missing. But that mass market won't do this. The more we add, the more we have to put it together ourselves.

[At Psion] we learned a lesson from Lotus in the early days. With Sinclair we produced four easy-to-use software packages and integrated them tightly. They were the four second best products in their field: word processing, spreadsheet, graphics, and a database. Lotus produced the best spreadsheet, so-so other applications and no word processor at all - and they won. The very best will always beat second best.

Symbian OS is a very, very good OS for a phone. It remains well ahead of the Microsoft offerings. All the comms side that we haven't seen will come into play yet. It's already in the phone - such as MobileIP and IPv6 - and that's real comms value for the Nokias.

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