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1/22/2007
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Q&A: Smartphone Platform Leader Outlines What's Ahead

Development work spans new microprocessor architectures, more applications, and embedded databases, says Symbian CEO.

What are the trends in smartphone operating systems? In researching "How Smartphone Platforms Compare," InformationWeek turned to Nigel Clifford, CEO of Symbian, the world's leading smartphone OS developer, for some answers. The following Q&A took place by e-mail.

InformationWeek: Looking ahead, what's next in mobile OS development?

Clifford: We work most closely with two areas adjacent to us in the phone -- hardware and applications.

There is a lot happening at the hardware level which the mobile OS has to work with: more memory; more mass storage; higher resolution displays with 32-bit color; broadband wireless; new processor architectures; multiple processors for accelerating graphics and multimedia processing. Also, SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) will come to phones, and physical memory will eventually approach 32-bit addressing limits.

Key 'users' of an OS are applications, and there's a lot going on here, too. The sheer quantity and variety of applications running on a phone, many in background. Demanding applications, like playing streaming video while recording it. Large amounts of data, such as a music play list. Resource contention problems -- for example, listening to an MP3 track when a call comes in. The need for security as more personal data is stored on the device, and the need to support applications migrating rom the desktop to the mobile screen.

Many of these problems have been partially or entirely managed on PCs and dedicated devices, but there are special challenges on mobile phones. For example, you can't throw energy at the problem. A phone isn't connected to the electricity grid, and it can't become too hot to handle. Battery technology is improving but slowly. Also improved battery technology would help with battery life but it wouldn't necessarily help with phones getting too hot. Therefore the OS has to be smart to manage resources such as power effectively and invisibly to the user.

InformationWeek: What are some of the most important or interesting things to be delivered next?

Clifford: On-demand paging that's suitable for a phone, making memory management more efficient and cost effective. Embedded SQL databases to handle large data volumes. Multimedia and graphics services.

InformationWeek: In what way does the mobile OS influence the finished product?

Clifford: The OS is a critical building block for a mobile phone. Clearly phones can be built without an advanced or even rudimentary OS, but it gets awfully expensive and the complexity rises sharply. For example, you can have a multimedia playback application that talks straight to the hardware, but if you want to integrate multimedia into your user interface for all applications it's practically impossible without an OS.

In addition, key characteristics of the user experience can depend on the ability of the OS to deliver a rapid boot time, multitasking without crashing, efficient power management, and multi-radio capability. Efficient memory management also helps reduce the cost of the finished product.

InformationWeek: What can Symbian do to grow its market share in the United States?

Clifford: The overall market for advanced mobile phones has been relatively small in the U.S. compared to population size and economic prosperity. For example, in the third quarter of 2006 there were more smartphones sold in China than the United States.

There are a number of theories as to why this is. However, we believe that the right preconditions are coming together: 3G networks, national coverage, subscriber saturation on the horizon, major Internet/PC/broadband brands seeking to innovate, growth in wireless broadband services, and products attractive to the U.S. consumer at price points that are affordable.

So Symbian will work with our handset partners to create excellent value for devices in form factors that appeal. We will also continue to explore our partnerships with key brands such as Yahoo and Google to create innovative offerings on the mobile screen. Our San Francisco office is well placed to provide a great interface with some of the key innovators in the US market in Silicon Valley and beyond.

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