It's obvious that the biggest platform Google's Android-based Open handset Alliance will have to face is Symbian - so what's the Symbian reaction?
Predictably enough, the first response, from the Symbian CEO and others, is to point out the abiding problems of Linux on smartphones. It's been too fragmented, and unable to produce real phones, with real user interfaces that can stand up to mass-market stresses.
"We've seen a lot of these alliances come and go," said Lucinda Barlow, vice president of market communications at Symbian. "We take it seriously, but it does seem to demonstrate the fundamental fragmentary nature of Linux. There are twenty flavours of Linux out there - this is one more flavour and it's an unproven flavour."
Linux, she said, takes a lot of people to produce a final platform, while Symbian has been proven with deliverable products. By sheer coincidence, the very day Google announced its Linux phone project, all Symbian's key staff were at a Symbian Summit in Japan - a key market for Linux phones - and announced positive results this quarter.
More than 20 million Symbian phones were shipped in the last quarter, and there has been a total of 165 million phones, and 202 different models shipped. Speaking from Japan, Barlow emphasised Symbian's time in the industry: "Over the past nine years, we have built up trust and experience," she said. Seven out of ten smartphones shipped have the operating system.
That's something Symbian will be emphasising to its Asian partners. Although Linux phones have been doing well in Asia, Symbian's share is increasing, she said. Within the NTT DoCoMo's FOMA market, for instance, Symbian grew from 50 percent to 65 percent at the end of the first half of 2007, while Linux market share declined.
"Linux is traditionally strong in Asia - it has been known to be doing well in China and Japan," said Barlow, "and yet Symbian has gained market share in those regions consistently.
Symbian might be disappointed, however, to see Asian operators DoCoMo and KDDI signing up to Android, wanting at the very list to spread their options, alongside operators in Europe including T-Mobile, O2 and Telecom Italia.
All the major handset manufacturers are using Symbian, said Barlow, but there's at least one hold-out that has jumped into the Android camp with great enthusiasm - HTC, formerly wedded to the Windows Mobile platform, and definitely a leader in designing attractive big-screen PDAs and phones.
"HTC is very committed to Windows Mobile and that will not change," said John Wang, chief marketing officer of HTC, in a press audio-conference. "The way we look at the Android platform is - this is an additional opportunity." It's significant that in all the years Symbian has been around, HTC has never seen that as an opportunity: "We do not ship Symbian products today."
Good for openness?
"On the positive side, it's great to see further support from the industry around openness," said Barlow. Till now, Symbian has been the most open phone platform, with a variety of ways to load different programs onto it, and even a possibility that they can run across different models without too much tweaking.
Android might claim to be even more open, however. "It's the first open mobile platform," said Wang. "Even with tens of thousand of mobile devices, all these devices will be able to share applications or content from one device to the other, which is not the case on several other platforms today."
It remains to be seen how Android will deliver this openness, through web-based or Java based applications. It's not an inherent result of its open source origins, though: that's about adding to the software, not sharing content, and the OHA will have to work through an alliance just as Symbian has.
Open source has never worked well on open devices, said Barlow. "The problem is that [open source] is extremely difficult to manage. It's not free, either. It costs a huge amount to integrate everything you need to get a phone together. Those costs are very real."
That is a fair point, but a backward looking one. Linux really has never had a phone alliance with as many key players as this one, so we should expect this one to achieve a lot more than the earlier ones. "There has never been such an alignment of key leadership through the industry," said Wang. "It's not difficult to realise the key future ability is the Internet - and who is the leader on the Internet? It is Google."
Where and what are these Google phones?
Barlow's other point, that Android handsets are a long way behind, is a fair one. HTC has promised to deliver handsets in the second half of 2008, and has also said that these will ship worldwide, with Europe getting them early on (a dig at Apple's hesitation to move outside the US).
However, HTC, like the OHA, is very, very short on any details of what these phones will actually do. Asked about new features in its planned Android phones, Wang said he was "announcing no specific features," and that "this is not an appropriate time," to discuss any innovations. He even pretended not to know whether the phones would have a touch-screen or not (as if anyone can ignore touch-screens, post-iPhone): "We can't release any technical detail, but it's fair to say that touch-screens are extremely important for providing a great user experience. I wouldn't rule them out."
So at this stage, Android looks like a paper tiger - or at least that's how Symbian wants us to see it.
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