Powering the Heart of the Wireless Community
By Syndi Perez, Mon Jan 29 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Inside the vast majority of third-generation handsets will be the EPOC operating system, developed by Symbian. Who are they and how did they get there?


On the verge of an important evolutionary step towards 2.5G services, followed by the leap towards 3G, links in the wireless value chain are scrambling to keep their balance in our rapidly developing wireless community. New technologies spring up under one foot almost before we can find a place to put down the other.

Our community's collective vision is fixed on tomorrow. New technologies emerging to bring that vision closer are quickly analyzed, and performance is judged to ascertain exactly where and how the new technology will fit in. No one escapes the examination: WAP, Bluetooth, GPRS... all are being closely watched and debated.

Any fledgling technology generates assumptions that aren't always true. The gossip is already humming about 3G: Unlimited bandwidth, universal coverage, and low-cost services... With many people pointing out that this won't necessarily be the case, the focus shifts to anticipating the realistic capabilities of 3G, and determining how to work around its limitations in order to maximize the benefits for everyone involved.

While the new 3G networks will indeed enhance services, making and keeping connections in a mobile environment will still be problematic.

Questions such as where you store data when not in use, and how your device allows you to continue to work offline, need to be answered. Also, how can your work seamlessly pick up where you left off, once the connection is re-established? Storage issues will focus more on the roles of the network operators and the devices' connectivity capabilities - data will need to be transparently synchronized between users' devices, PCs, network accounts, and so on, depending on their preferences.

Hard choices have to be made by manufacturers and developers, regarding the trade-off between the functionality, complexity and usability of any device. In other words, how powerful can it be without making it too complex and cumbersome for the end user to appreciate?

The task in solving these puzzles is daunting, yet step-by-step, companies and individuals around the world are putting together the answers. One such company is Symbian.

Who are Symbian?

The company owns, develops and licenses a software platform for next-generation mobile devices. In its brief history, Symbian has produced the underlying system and application software for the Nokia 9210 Communicator, the Ericsson R380 Smartphone, and Psion's Series 5, Series 7 and Revo PDA ranges. Now a joint venture by some of the world's leading handset manufacturers, Symbian has historic roots in Psion.

By the first half of the 1990s, Psion was the world's leading PDA manufacturer. Its machines ran on a 16-bit SIBO operating system, which was already Psion's third generation of system software for mobile devices. When the company split into four separate divisions in 1996, the new Psion Software's mission was to license the product that its developers had created to OEMs outside of the Psion Group. This product, a unique, innovative 32-bit operating system for handheld devices, was called EPOC.

EPOC, running on the ARM architecture, made its debut in the Psion Series 5, in 1997. Surprisingly robust, the 32-bit software and applications delivered easy power, while using very little ROM. At the start, EPOC was feature-rich, containing an entire suite of applications including word processor, spreadsheet, database, agenda, calculator, world time clock, bitmap painting program, voice recorder, comms program, OPL development environment, spell checker, and more.

By early 1998, a new idea emerged: If Psion Software were an independent company outside of the Psion Group, it would be easier to license the software to OEMs. Taking that idea one step further, if it was owned by the world's leading handset manufacturers, then the handset manufacturers would own a strong technology asset which would enable them to boost the entire market for Communicator and Smartphone devices. The handset manufacturers are fiercely competitive, and EPOC was sufficiently adaptable to sustain their relentless innovation, while allowing competition in their device types' function and form factors.

On June 24th, 1998, Symbian and its business strategy were announced. Its owners would be Psion, Nokia and Ericsson. Motorola also announced its intention to join the alliance, and did so formally in October of that year. Japan's Matsushita, better known as Panasonic, joined in May 1999. Thus Symbian is a global company, owned by Psion and the world's top four mobile phone manufacturers, and licensed by several other handset manufacturers including: Kenwood, Sanyo, Sony and Philips Consumer Communications.

Since its inception, both the product and the company have grown in scope and capability.

From a steady stream of releases came additional revisions and added features such as a full fax, e-mail client, Web browser, and Java implementation - which offers developers a third option in programming languages (alongside C++ and OPL). EPOC Release 5 was released in 1999, followed by EPOC Release 5u, which contained a Unicode version of EPOC R5, and was nicknamed ER5u.

ER5u has since evolved into the Generic Technology of the Symbian platform, Version 6.0. Generic Technology (GT) is the evolving software platform at the heart of Symbian's wireless information devices. Symbian's device families have evolved with two Communicator designs - one tablet-based, one keyboard-based, and also a Smartphone platform.

The keyboard-based device family is a logical evolution of the Psion Series 5 into the product category defined by the Nokia 9000 series Communicators. Tablet-style Communicators are pen-based devices. Symbian writes the UIs for the device families, and ensures that licensees can add their own value and branding. Symbian's Smartphone device family, targeted at the Smartphone sector where phone manufacturers demand greater product differentiation, also includes Generic Technology, and allows licensees much greater freedom to customize the applications and user interface.

Generic Technology includes the unique multi-tasking EPOC kernel, as well as data management, communications, graphics, multimedia, security, application engines, messaging engine, browser engines for WAP and HTML, a rich Java runtime environment, and support for data synchronization and world-wide locales. Sharing the generic functionality between its reference designs enables easy application porting, since those parts of an application that use Generic Technology APIs need not be changed.

By using the same Generic Technology for both keyboard and pen-based Communicator families in Version 6.0, Symbian is able to deliver two reference designs simultaneously, offering a choice for manufacturers, carriers, enterprises and end-users. By ensuring that the software is flexible enough to allow variation in the form of the devices without compromising function, the platform allows for a higher level of creativity and innovation in the marketplace.

Additionally, Generic Technology's customizable look-and-feel module allows licensees the option to design their devices' GUIs to suit their needs. This enables the manufacturers to address the differing levels of complexity required by end users. A student with a Smartphone need not be overwhelmed by a complex device designed for Enterprise use; yet both devices could be powered by the same core OS.

The operating system originally called EPOC has evolved into something broader and more powerful: The Symbian platform.

The platform

In the discussion about "killer apps" and the emergence of 3G, the fact that the devices being developed are, at their hearts, mobile phones, cannot be overlooked. The most common denominator in the broad arena of devices and applications will continue to be voice communications. With that in mind, the task should not necessarily be one of determining the killer application, because voice communication is already here. Instead, the challenge should be to deploy a mix of powerful applications that, when integrated together on a mobile phone, becomes a killer platform.

The variable needs of the end user will generate complexity in the wireless market. In order to address enterprise, personal, professional and others' requirements, devices need to feature the ability to host specialist applications that run dependably alongside a device's base telephony and personal information management functions. Instant messaging, multi-player games, voice call management systems, and a variety of personal information exchange/social interaction applications, are only a handful of the types of apps being designed by application developers.

Symbian's support for open communications standards in areas such as messaging, object exchange, and personal information, eases the development of applications and services for wireless devices. The platform supports an extensive range of software development options for next-generation mobile devices, in several languages: C++, Java, OPL, WAP, and HTML. Via the Symbian Developer Network, the company provides developers with free Software Development Kits (SDKs), which contain all the tools necessary to write applications, DLLs and system components for Symbian-based devices. This open approach to new applications provides the end user with a wide range of services and functions to choose from.

In this way, Symbian enables the wireless community to address issues regarding killer apps and killer platform solutions. By encouraging developers to independently innovate around the platform, Symbian seeks to provide the wireless market with a variety of choices and application options. This openness also allows developers the opportunity to design a variety of data management solutions.

As a result

Increasing the available functions and services of a mobile device will have advantages for many links in the wireless value chain. End users will ultimately have a richer experience with their devices, if they can not only make and receive calls, but also simultaneously transfer and view files, personal contact info, images, and location information all on one device. Network operators will benefit from the revenue generated by the use of such devices, due to the number of services utilized in such information exchanges. Handset manufacturers benefit by offering reliable devices that offer the widest possible variety of services to customers, thereby selling more units. Working in conjunction with its partners in the wireless community allows Symbian to help focus on issues such as data management and storage, sporadic network connections, etc. Rather than dictate one supreme answer to these problems, the company seeks to enable the development of a wide variety of compatible connectivity solutions. In turn, this supplier independence gives end users, device manufacturers, network and service providers, and application developers a greater freedom of choice for meeting their specific needs.

It is this integration of co-operation, communication and partnership, and the robust reliability of the Symbian platform, that has impressed the leading global handset manufacturers to look to Symbian to provide the best-suited operating system to power the growth of the wireless market, and to lead the wireless community into 3G and beyond.

Syndi Perez is part of the New Media Group at Symbian. Currently based in London ("This city rocks!"), she has finally adjusted after relocating from Symbian's Redwood City, California office last year ("Where's my umbrella?").