United We Stand
By Eric Lin, Wed Nov 03 00:15:00 GMT 2004

Nokia has announced that it will expand Series 60 to include pen input and larger screens on the same day it launches a Series 90 device that has all these features.

Nokia's Series 60, the company's smartphone platform built on the Symbian OS, is the undisputed champion of the smartphone world, at least in terms of sales. It was the first one-handed smartphone interface to launch and is still one of a few on the market. These devices don't have touchscreens and mimic standard mobile phones more closely than PDA-style connected devices. Their similarity to other phones, as well as their smaller size and lower cost (touchscreens tend to be big and expensive), are a big part of what makes them so popular. Microsoft was the first other OS maker to realize this, launching its Smartphone platform shortly after Series 60. Recently UIQ and Palm have both announced they will offer one-handed versions of their interfaces as well.

Although it is the most popular one, Series 60 is not Nokia's only entry in the smartphone arena. It has two big brothers that also run on Symbian. Series 80 is the time tested OS powering the Communicators, and Series 90 is the recently announced multimedia OS with a large touchscreen display. Each of these operating systems has the same Symbian core, but each presents a different interface tuned to the phone's hardware capabilities. However Nokia has now confused matters by announcing that it will expand Series 60 to include more powerful multimedia capabilities, touchscreens and displays up to 640x320. These are all features that currently are integrated into Series 90, and what differentiates it from Series 60. Series 90 could just be a stop gap until Nokia can expand its most popular platform to encompass handsets of all shapes and sizes.

Unifying an OS onto a single, device-independent platform makes sense. Although programmers don't have to completely rewrite applications to run on each of the Nokia platforms, they do have to make interface adjustments as well as other small changes. While this is a minor inconvenience for developers, this is a much bigger hassle for carriers or their software distribution partners, which need to maintain separate libraries for each device, even if they run on the same core OS. It also makes things difficult for carriers and manufacturers, who don't want to spend additional time and money deciding on which interface to support after making a decision on an OS platform.

The same issues are still a problem for Microsoft's two interfaces as well. But one by one -- first UIQ, then Palm, now Nokia -- companies are creating a single smartphone platform regardless of interface. This gives everyone involved a maximum amount of benefit with a minimum amount of effort. Developers can create software for a platform quicker and spend less effort creating applications that can run on more devices. Distributors will jump at the chance to simplify their library. They are tired of having to manage and support different devices running the same platform. And the manufacturers and carriers will be free to customize handsets to their exact needs without having to limit them to the narrow hardware requirements presented by earlier smartphone OSes. Now that everyone else has effectively unified their smartphone platforms, it's likely -- and prudent, considering the compelling case for it -- that Microsoft will follow suit as well.