Yesterday, I looked at Windows Mobile's threat to Symbian's dominance of smartphones. Today - my foolish idea of what to do about it.
Symbian has 72 percent of the world smartphone market - but is virtually nowhere in the US, where Windows Mobile rules the roost. Much of this is probably to do with the perceived benefits - for users who need to link their phone to applications on a desktop - of having Windows on both.
Those benefits may be spurious (or it may actually be disadvantage) but the effect is real enough. Windows owns around 90 percent of desktops, both in business and in homes.
Symbian points out that it's still in the lead outside the US, and also points out that the smartphone is only one sector, and it has the whole vast mobile phone space to play with. Inasmuch as it accepts Windows Mobile as a problem, it says it has the answer in diversity and scalability. Symbian phones go down below $150, and right up to the highest-end multimedia video-playing devices, and all the top handset makers use it for some phones - which isn't the case with Windows Mobile.
The US is also an anomaly, as Symbian's VP of US operations Jerry Panagrossi pointed out to me: "Our strategy is based on market timing," he says. Smartphones don't take off till a region is saturated with phones, and operators need to move to data services. That's happened in Asia and Europe, and hasn't quite happened in the US - fewer than 80 percent of Americans have a cellphone, so operators are still pursuing the remaining customers with subsidised phones and long contracts: "That strategic approach doesn't lend itself to the sale of smartphone categoary devices," says Panagrossi.
Symbian's approach - keep expanding in other areas - could turn out to be enough, but it could turn into an acceptance that it's conceded the "connected-to-a-US-desktop" smartphone sector. Then, as US-based multinationals follow the lead of head office, it will concede more of the smartphone market outside the US.
But why not way to address this one issue, where Windows Mobile seems to have an edge - this "connected-to-a-desktop" issue. Despite Windows' dominance, this might be a more open question than Symbian thinks.
A new paradigm
Currently, mobility and Web 2.0 is creating a generation of users with the ability to be less tethered to their PC than they have ever been. Web-based apps, mobile data, broadband and public Wi-Fi all add up to a situation where users can access applications anywhere, but don’t actually need to carry the applications - or the data - with them.
For instance, the promise of mobile email isn't the ability to carry your email with you. It was always possible to get out your laptop, fire up Outlook, work on your email and synch it. Nowadays people's email is out there on the web. They can check it quickly on a handheld device, log into Google on a public terminal to work on replies, and then see the responses on the home computer when they return home.
What if the mobile part of our email use becomes the norm for looking at mail? I now have days when I don't see my email on a computer screen, because I can do all I need on my phone (currently a Symbian-based Nokia E65). It's nicer to have a mouse, but I could imagine in future turning to the phone first, and the desktop (or laptop) the second.
At that stage, I might not need the PC interface - just a larger version of the phone interface, with a mouse, keyboard and a bigger screen. If Symbian is really scalable and extendable, why not extend it to a non-mobile, non-handheld device? Why not make a Symbian desktop?
Symbian on your desk?
This could just as easily be a laptop, of course, just so long as it's a Symbian device that is too big to go in my pocket, which gives me familiar desktop input options, and connects to the Internet. It needn't be much more than a dock for the phone, with enough local power to support a browser-based thin client. Any user could consult their web applications at it, just as they could on a public terminal, even without their phone being there.
It could also have local media player abilities, and connect to devices like PVRs. That would earn it a place in the home, and justify users spending money on it. It might not wean people off the Windows PC, but maybe its over-specified Media Centre variant would be an easier target.
Connecting the device might be awkward; phones don't have a video-out port, and don't tend to drive local data at the speed that a big screen would require. Now though, ports won't be how we want to do it. The connection would be wireless, working with the phone still in your pocket, unless you want to charge it up. That should be possible with ultrawideband, the short range connection that's got the potential to take the place of USB, giving 500 Mbit/s of personal-area data without wires.
A stupid idea?
It might seem dumb to put out a competitor to Windows, but that hasn't stopped recent devices.
Palm's Foleo phone-companion is a solid state laptop that switches on instantly when needed, and uses the phone to connect up. It's an extra piece of kit to carry, just as big as a laptop but (maybe) more convenient for Palm Treo users.
HP's acquisition of Neoware shows there's plenty of life in now-traditional thin-clients mostly for contact centres.
Meanwhile Microsoft is fooling around with ultra-mobile PCs, a sector which should show Symbian what not do do - smartly falling between all the available stools. It's not as usable as a laptop or even a Tablet, and not as mobile as a phone.
No mobility required
A Symbian desktop could come up with something stronger than all of these. It doesn't have to do multiple incompatible jobs. It needn't be mobile, because we have phones, and it doesn’t have to run Windows apps because we have PCs for that. It could line up in Internet cafes, ready to help any web user - but offer a bit more to a Symbian user. It could be a hot desk for a staff of mobile salespeople. It could sit at home, ready to give anyone in the family access to their web apps, or play media - but also synch up music and files to the family's phones when they're in range.
It might be too late to dislodge Windows Mobile from the hands of people synching smartphones with PCs. But if Symbian's reach is bigger, why not pitch this at a low cost, to non-smartphone users. It might go down well with people that don't have a PC, or want to get off the Windows upgrade merry-go-round - maybe in the developing world or among businesses that already like the thin client idea.
It might be a foolish idea, but I think Symbian might do well to think inside the box it is currently outside of.
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