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Symbian Stakes A U.S. Claim

Open source may be the wild card in the mobile enterprise, and the Symbian operating system is opening up in an attempt to be used more often.

Open source software may be the wild card in the mobile enterprise. That's the thinking behind Nokia's decision in June to snap up the 52% of Symbian it didn't already own for some $411 million. The deal, due to close in the fourth quarter, will open the Symbian smartphone operating system even more by placing all its code and associated development tools under the auspices of the Symbian Foundation, where it will be available royalty-free.

A challenge for Symbian is that, although more than 200 million phones sporting the OS have been shipped worldwide, it's better known in Asia and Europe than in the United States.

For enterprises seeking a mobile platform for their mission-critical apps, that could change soon, says John Forsyth, VP of strategy at Symbian. The North American market, where mobile phones are closely tied to carriers, has far less product going through retail channels than in the European market, Forsyth notes, "so getting the carriers to stick their name on your platform is an essential step. When you see AT&T announce their support and membership in the Symbian Foundation, that's a big win for us."

Forsyth also points to the recently released Nokia E71 smartphone as a showcase for Symbian's technical prowess. One of the device's most visible features is its WebKit-based browser, which shares a technology heritage with Apple's Safari. Behind the curtain, Forsyth points to a cost-cutting feature called demand paging, which allows for a "first-class browser" with a relatively small amount of RAM in the phone, resulting in "top performance in a reasonably priced device."

Models in Nokia's N series deliver on the "leave the laptop at home" premise by sporting TV-output jacks, which let users plug into digital projectors and deliver PowerPoint presentations directly from the phone.

Symbian, Forsyth says, is looking to further push the envelope on smartphone performance. The next phase of the Symbian OS is multicore support; the company has it running on four cores in its labs. The idea is that the phone can save battery life by enlisting only one or two cores when running lightweight processes, but can kick it up several notches when high-stress apps come calling. Forsyth adds: "Multicore architectures are up to really anything a laptop can do."

Photo illustration by Sek Leung

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