Symbian Show Born and hyped in the USA, mobile VoIP over Wi-Fi looks set to create waves everywhere … except the USA.
That's one, unexpected conclusion you can draw from the Symbian Smartphone show this year, which drew 4,000 attendees to London's Docklands, and finished today. At CTIA last month, US delegates were wondering aloud whether the nation had made the wrong decision by ignoring the rest of the world, Symbian's CEO Nigel Clifford suggested. The irony is that mobile VoIP was seen as a proxy for revolution - it would make the cellular operators obsolete, rather than attain the more modest goal of forcing them to lower their tariffs, and open their networks up a little.
In the UK, as elsewhere in Europe, mobile VoIP is finally here, and although it's still in its infancy - it's very definitely real. Nokia's decision to include a SIP stack in its E-series Symbian phones has created a small explosion of start-up service providers. Kinks abound - and the number of devices available on the market is still limited - but the benefits are tangible. As I noted yesterday, since trialling VoIP on Symbian a month ago I haven't used any cellular minutes at home - except by accident. (For more information about two of these new providers, see the Related Links at the end of the article).
So why are US consumers and businesses failing to reap the benefits so far? Two reasons stand out. Intransigent network operators are determined to cripple SIP-capable devices they sell in the USA - and they're getting away with it, thanks to a lack of real competition. And the United States' home-grown technology simply does mobile VoIP really, really badly - while it spurns providers who do it well.
Let's start with the first. Nokia's E-series range made its debut a few weeks ago in the US in the shape of the E62. This conservatively-styled phone has been well-received - it resembles a RIM, only slimmer. But look a little closer and you'll see a significant difference to the identical E61 sold in Europe and Asia - there's no Wi-Fi. The E61 supports 3G, and 802.11b and 802.11g - but the E62 is hampered to EDGE-speeds. It's possible to make SIP calls over EDGE, but you wouldn't really want to. And while Nokia's keyboard communicator the 9300 finally made it to market, as a Blackberry device, it's Wi-Fi enabled sibling the 9300i hasn't - and won't. Thank you, Cingular.
Secondly, the proposition is being trail blazed by Nokia on Symbian OS, and neither Nokia or Symbian are particularly prominent in the US, to put it charitably. While it leads in Europe, and dominates in much of Asia as the must-have brand, Nokia has historically struggled to make much headway in the US. For this it can blame carriers wary of ceding branding to the world's no.1 - they've preferred to rebadge cheap Korean clones, as well as a market split between three incompatible air interfaces. Earlier this year, in fact, Nokia signalled a retreat from the CDMA business - effectively declaring it couldn't compete in a significant portion of the market. As for Symbian, its profile is negligible in a high-end market dominated by old technologies: RIM grew out of the pager business, and Palm from the PDA business.
What the E-series is proving, we learned, is that while anyone can put a SIP stack onto a mobile device, anyone can do it badly too. Because Symbian was designed from the ground-up with power management in mind, and handling low-power situations takes real skill, the results are far superior than for other devices. We heard several complaints from experienced telephony developers about the quality of the Nokia SIP stack, but it's the only one fully-integrated with the operating system's power management. On Windows Mobile, for example, a phone left on standby will exhaust its battery in around four hours - with an E61, it's two days. Guess which one US manufacturers prefer.
US manufacturers seem particularly schizoid about Symbian. Motorola pulled out of Symbian, preferring to go with Linux. Palm once agreed to develop PalmOS on a Symbian kernel, a design which would particularly suit the current operating system "personalities" supported by the real-time Symbian today. Palm went its own way. And recently RIM denied suggestions it would have to make the jump, as investing in its own technology was increasingly not cost efficient.
It can't just be a fear of Nokia. Even Asian manufacturers who only use Symbian as a locked-down platform are seeing advantage in making their phones capable of SIP over Wi-Fi. Both LG and Samsung had the first Symbian models they've created for Europe on display - and Samsung's roasts Nokia's S60 phones for speed.
All of which leaves US entrepreneurs frustrated, and consumers in the worst possible position.
One irony of this is that mobile Wi-Fi VoIP has been stoked by the Wintel alliance, which is keenest to break the dominance of the operators' traditional suppliers. You may recall the wondrous concept "tele-phone" that Intel proudly demonstrated at IDF. But neither Intel nor Microsoft are contributing to anything that resembles a competitive mobile product. Featurewise, yes. But in terms of flexibility and performance, the results are awful.
Another, even greater irony is that the technology utopians, the Wi-Fi crowd, saw it as a way of "freeing the radio waves". This is a laudable goal in some ways, but technology won't do it by itself. The only way to ensure oligopolies don't carve up the marketplace between them is to regulate them fairly and effectively - which means lobbying, organizing, and creating a consensus for a strong regulatory environment. This is an anathema to the deregulation happy utopians- politics is messy, and fraught with compromises. But technology without an FCC that serves the public, offers no magic light sabres. ®