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Psion PSection

Symbian: What it means to you

By Mark Esposito
August 1998, issue 23

At the end of June, the biggest announcement from Psion since the Series 5, and maybe in the company’s history, was made. Psion Software, the company that produced the EPOC32 operating system was dissolved to become Symbian, a joint venture between Psion, Nokia, Ericsson, and Motorola. I’ll explain this further as we go. This is such monumental news, for a number of reasons, that I’ll dedicate a large chunk of the Psion Psection to explaining the significance of this announcement. If you are a user of palmtops or cellular phones, this will affect your choices in the future, so read on.

I’ve tried to stay objective in this column since I began writing it in November of 1997, and I hope I’ve succeeded. Being an EPOC developer myself, it wouldn’t do me any good to try to make my platform look better than it is, or to come here with a bunch of bloated software reviews, so I don’t. I’ve always given the kudos to the other platforms when I thought they got something right. However, the turn of events at Psion is something that can’t be taken lightly, and I don’t think I am overstating its importance here.

Main objectives
Symbian brings together Psion Software, Nokia, Ericsson, and soon Motorola, with their combined technologies of operating system and wireless. It remains a jointly owned technology company that will license and continue to develop an operating system that targets at least two types of devices to start, the communicator and the smart phone. The communicator is a palmtop device, like a Series 5, which will no doubt have wireless capabilities in the future, and the smart phone is a digital phone with data capabilities. It is easy to see the validity of this breakdown. A phone that does e-mail, web browsing, scheduling, and contact management would clearly eliminate the need for a conventional palmtop for some users, while not for others. At the right price, what corporate user is going to turn down a mobile phone that does his/her e-mail via wireless? It sounds strange that a company that manufactures palmtops would contribute to a device that stops some users from needing a palmtop, but the market is going to dictate that this happen. Symbian aims to establish itself as the defacto standard that will provide the OS for the future non-palmtop devices.

Look out Pilot and Palm PC
Don’t lose me here, because I’m writing something that I still can’t believe I’m writing: With some synchronization, and the concerted effort we now see through Symbian, the smart phone could clearly take over the Pilot and Palm PC market. Don’t forget that this size device is not typically used for heavy-duty data entry, but for viewing appointments, locating contacts, and doing e-mail. The smart phone can do all of this, and voice too. If the user can get the same functionality right on his/her mobile phone, why would he/she want to carry two devices? Clearly he/she wouldn’t. There is no love for the device in this market. Business users just want something that works. The communicator (palmtop) on the other hand is different in that is has a keyboard for heavier data entry requirements. This is the reason Symbian mentions two distinct devices in their licensing plans, the communicator and the smart phone.

Psion’s June surprise!
This news must have Microsoft wondering what hit them. They were no doubt thinking they had the market all to themselves. It’s a certainty now that Windows CE won’t be the only platform out there as Symbian works to establish a standard in one of the largest upcoming markets in the world, the data capable mobile phone, or smart phone. Most know that Bill Gates has planned for WinCE to be the small platform for all kinds of small devices, including even household devices as the home gets more computerized. What could be bigger than the future smart phone market? It dwarfs the PDA market. The phone manufacturers are expecting huge growth in the mobile phone market in the next few years. The smart phone will deliver real-time e-mail and web browsing, scheduling, and contacts on your phone, and at a reasonable price. In the next two years I believe smart phones will become a reality on a large scale. Currently you’d need the Nokia 9000 to accomplish this on a phone, and it has until recently been available only in Europe. Others are getting connected via wireless technology using special data oriented radio networks, but these have been expensive for air time, and have required specific devices, not just a phone. I recently reviewed the Philips Synergy device, which is the first smart phone based on EPOC. I will have a follow-up review of this device as soon as I can get my hands on one.

What happened to Psion Software?
When I first heard the news about Symbian, I was a bit confused. I wondered what kind of a deal this was, and how it would affect me as a Psion user and developer. To answer the first question I called some friends at Psion to find out what was going on. I wondered if we were talking merger here, or a sale, or what? Alasdair Manson, a long-time friend from Psion Software, now Symbian, verified for me that Psion Software would not exist anymore under that name. Furthermore, that the new company was jointly owned by Psion, Nokia, Ericsson, and soon Motorola.

The more I learn about this, the more I am amazed at how big it is for Psion and all mobile computer users. When you see the company names mentioned, you might wonder how these competitors could live under the same roof.

I got some of the details from Paul Cockerton at Symbian Ltd. There is a board within Symbian that will control the inner workings of the company, such as licensing. None of the companies in the group will have control over whom the technology is licensed to. Of course they will have a hand in the developing technology, so Symbian becomes a pool for technology that helps the whole group by providing standards for mobile data. The reason this seems strange at first is due to the fact that it represents an unusually non-competitive approach. This isn’t company A seeking to beat out company B, but a group of companies getting together to establish standards from which all will benefit. The players on the mobile phone side of Symbian wants some standardization for handling data, and they evidently aren’t interested in getting into the computer OS wars. Psion, on the data side is in the business of licensing their OS, so this is a clear winner for them. After considering the offerings, EPOC32 came out as the best OS for this application.

One of the key reasons that EPOC won this battle is the branding issue. EPOC does not force the licensee to show EPOC branding in the user interface. The licensee can use the core engines of the applications that are included with EPOC, and bolt on their own customized (and branded) user interface. This makes for a very open platform. It’s good business. Hardware manufacturers of all kinds will be able to license EPOC and wireless technologies from Symbian and keep their own branding.

Digesting the news
My own conclusion after digesting all of this news is that Symbian will begin to define the wireless devices of the future. Remember that I’m not saying that Psion will define them, but that Symbian will. Symbian is not just Psion. They have the resources behind them to build wireless data standards that will be impossible to beat.

Is this good for Psion PLC? Of course it is. I don’t expect to hear anymore gloom and doom about Psion for a long time to come.

Mark Esposito can be reached via e-mail at

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