Standing at the Crossroads
By David Stennett, Thu Aug 23 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Change is inevitable, and mobile application platforms are no exception.

By now we've all come to expect similar functionality every time we buy a new mobile phone. The only things that seem to consistently change with each new model are the design, the bundled ringing tones, and the price tag. A few new features tacked-on here or there, such as screensavers, are nice but the basic formula is the same.

Additionally, recent initiatives such as WAP, GPRS, and Bluetooth have so far proven to be (more or less of) a letdown. In fact, if you ask someone who has ever used one of these 3 functions, the response will almost universally have some element of diappointment. However, that's not to say the fault lies with the technologies themselves - they're all quite amazing. Their market failure is a direct result of the carefully guarded proprietary (and therefore quite often incompatible) software that nearly every mobile phone maker employs. A closed system like this restricts outside development that would otherwise find bugs quicker, speed development, and otherwise make products just plain better. However, there's a new sheriff in town and much of that is about to change.

Boldly going where no-one has gone before, Nokia & Ericsson just recently launched the first mass-market Symbian mobile devices and have, like a tsunami, started a sweeping revolution that promises to change the face of mobile application development.

Those of you who are not yet familiar with Symbian take note: it's a mobile device operating system that provides programming interfaces for third-party applications (via a C++ hybrid called EPOC). At long last, programmers will be able to load their handhelds with applications of their own design. And should they choose, they'll be able to distrubute (or sell) these apps to the hundreds of millions of other users looking for the same killer functionality.

A new market has just been born, folks. Did you see it coming?

It isn't just about a new market, however. It's also about opening up development possibilities that all mobile phone makers in the world combined couldn't match with their resources. Eggheads in R&D departments will still be needed, of course, but the average front-line programmers will no longer be locked out of the party. They will create, and most of us will be ready and willing to consume.

The increased competition will ensure steady development of new applications, while the huge number of potential cutomers guarantees developers the opportunity to make money. It's a win-win situation for all sides.

The coming conflict

Some of you out there may be already asking, "So what, PDAs have had this capability already, what's one more operating system to complement the many already out there?"

Good point. Window CE devices already give users the ability to load up almost any application they want. In fact, this flexibility has made Window CE devices quite popular in the high-end market (sometimes these devices cost even more than a desktop PC). The Symbian operating system (OS) was originally developed for the broad market by Psion and further enhanced by Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, and Panasonic. Their goal was to create a standard platform with which to equip their devices - and they've succeeded.

It was a great move for the group, because in doing so they avoided tying themselves to Microsoft or any other proprietary solution. In fact, Symbian promises to be more flexible and stable than Windows, while at the same time offering the device makers a large amount of flexibility for customizing their devices.

But Symbian's EPOC certainly doesn't have the broad market in the bag, and Windows CE isn't going anywhere. What Symbian has just done is set the stage for a Battle Royale.

The promise of Utopia

Come what may of the possible mega-company shootout in the future; let's look toward our Utopian wire-free society after the dust has settled. What can we expect from a Symbian mobile society? What are some of the visionary concepts we'd be moving toward, that would make the world a better place?

Well, for starters you're going to see a massive amount of shareware popping up all over the place ready to be loaded onto EPOC devices: MP3 players, multimedia players, mapping applications, Web browsers and the like. However, this is just the beginning. The possibilities are endless. The only thing to really consider they'll be limited by is a smaller display, less memory capacity, and slower processors than a conventional PDA. New MP3 downloads, m-commerce, etc... should become all the more ubiquitous as the devices are better equipped to handle such requests.

Of course, we've heard much of this already before. But the failure of the current mobile device market aside from poor applications via proprietary enclaves is simply the poor planning that followed the release of these technologies.

The first WAP phones were on the market before the first WML book hit the shelf! There was nothing to look at! However, this time, the Symbian group is trying not to embarrass this technology by already releasing up-to-date versions of Symbian programming books, which can be found almost anywhere, if not on Some good applications are already out, and there are a lot more in the works.

Existing problems

I've already mentioned what kind of applications we might expect from Symbian EPOC devices, but what we still lack is cross-platform universal communication method. Aside from Bluetooth (a technology hard to find even today), what other methods of communication do Palm OS and Windows CE-powered devices have?

As far as I can tell, it's going to be the old standard - the immortal serial cable employing some kind of synchronization software - hardly something revolutionary. Will Symbian be utilizing UML, so that I can turn on my TV with my mobile phone, or my lights in my house for that matter when I'm on vacation in Croatia?

Larger questions loom

I have no doubt that EPOC-enabled products are going to be huge. However, what even Symbian needs to keep in mind is that without good applications, that platform can easily fail. It will only succeed if Symbian can garner enough developers out in the real-word to code the applications consumers demand. The secret to getting them to develop for EPOC is to keep the platform as open and standards compliant as possible.

By offering its EPOC software developemnt kits for free on the Web, Symbian has certainly taken a step in the right direction. If they continue, there is little doubt that interest in will climb.

Can you imagine making your very own navigation menus for your phone? I firmly believe the day will come when customizing your phone's software is just as common as it is today on a PC - and that some of the more ambitious among in will develop some truly magnificent uses in the process.

Like the desktop PC, software will run the wireless world.

David Stennett is an independent application developer who lives in Prague.