Half the people planning to buy a smart phone in the next six months are completely indifferent to which operating system it comes with. That is according to a study by German research company TNS Infratest, which also found that Microsoft's Windows Mobile for the top choice out of those that did state a preference. In the early stages of a battle for pocket-share, the result will make dismal reading for Nokia, whose Symbian-based Series 60 platform is the market leader by a very long chalk, but clearly has little brand awareness.

"We weren't too surprised to see that only around half of the buyers we surveyed showed an interest in OS software, but we were a bit surprised to learn that half of those with an interest preferred Windows Mobile," said Ulrich Maier, an analyst with TNS Infratest. "Symbian is, by far, the dominating operating system in mobile phones used in Europe today."

Germany, which accounts for around 25 percent of the European mobile phone market, is a good gauge for general purchasing patterns, according to Neil Mawston, senior analyst at Strategy Analytics. The country has a mobile penetration of more than 70 percent, or about 60 million subscribers.

This year, Strategy Analytics expects more than 30 million handsets to be sold in Germany. Of these, 1.5 million will be smart phones. Next year, the research group projects smart-phone sales in the country to exceed 2.5 million.

TNS Infratest interviewed 263 people who plan to buy a smart phone within the next half year. In addition to design and functionality, compatibility with desktop computers and notebooks emerged as a key factor in their choice of phone, he said. "People want their mobile devices to sync effortlessly with applications running on their computers," Maier said. "They want the process to be easy and hassle-free."

Of the potential smart phone buyers who expressed an interest in a specific operating system, about 50 percent preferred Windows Mobile, 25 percent singled out Symbian and the remaining 25 percent said they preferred PalmSource, Linux or other systems.

The Symbian OS is developed by Symbian Ltd, a company in which Nokia has a majority share. Other shareholders include Matsushita, Samsung, Siemens, Sony Ericsson and Ericsson. PalmSource develops and licenses PalmSource OS, which is used in smart phones, PDAs and other devices from several manufacturers including PalmOne and Sony.

Linux is a relative newcomer to the smart phone market. After launching the world's first Linux smart phone last year and a new model earlier this year, China's E28 announced last week that it is offering handset manufacturers the opportunity to license its software and hardware designs based on the increasingly popular open-source operating system. Motorola has also started shipping Linux smart phones.

"Those who prefer Windows Mobile believe they will have far fewer compatibility and synchronisation problems with their desktop computers and notebooks," Maier said. "Those who prefer Symbian or PalmSource expect to have greater stability and a wider range of applications, and to be less prone to virus attacks."

But Strategy Analytics' Mawston said consumers today buy mobile phones mostly for their hardware design and not their software applications. "This has been the purchasing pattern with mobile phones up until now but it could change with a growing focus on new mobile data services," he said.

However, with smart phones causing a crossover between traditional phone manufacturers and IT companies, it may only be a matter of time before the marketeers start pushing particular operating systems. Indeed, with Microsoft in the market, it seems inevitable.

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