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Monday, February 24, 2003

The new OS war zone
Roopinder Singh

THERE are hundreds of different rate slabs that cellphone users here have to deal with. Then there are different technologies like GSM and CDMA, which we have discussed in these columns some time ago. Just to make matters more complicated, there are many different cell phone operating systems that are all vying for various instruments. No wonder the consumers are confounded.

It might surprise some readers that cellphones have an operating system, but it shouldn’t. After all, there seems to be an OS in almost every gadget that you come across. Software designed for mobile phones has to be planned for specific requirements, even though it is in a way running what have become smaller versions of personal digital assistants (PDAs). As such the OS should have low-resource requirements, since everything—processing power, memory and even screen space, is at a premium. Of course the OS has to be able to deal with the virtual alphabet soup of mobile communication: Bluetooth, WAP, EMS, MMS, SyncML, IPv6, W-CDMA, GPRS, GSM, HSCSD….

Symbian vs Microsoft

Manufactures typically rely on their own operating system, say Nokia’s NOS (Nokia Operating System), for the fairly simple and cheap cell phones. Such operating systems are not used for the kind of multi-application platforms advanced users want their phones to be—ones that can send photos, show video and e-mail spreadsheets, in effect act as tiny PDAs which calls for much more sophisticated and powerful use of the cellphone’s computing capabilities.

PDA OS platforms would seem to have a better chance of handling mobile requirements and it is thus logical that the major mobile phone OS platform is Symbian that was spun off the UK-based Psion (famous for their Psion handhelds) in 1998. It is jointly owned by Psion Plc., Nokia, Motorola, Ericsson, Sony Ericsson, Siemens, Panasonic and according the latest information, Samsung Electronics, which entered into the alliance last week. The headquarters of the company are in the UK, and it has offices in Japan, Sweden, UK and the USA. Prominent current phones using Symbian OS are Sony Ericsson P800 Smartphone, Nokia 3650 and Nokia 7650 Smartphone. Nokia 9200 Series Communicator and Nokia N-Gage.

Symbian targets original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and allows them to customise the OS for their platforms. This makes it popular among the manufacturers, but raises issues of interoperability, since there are various variations because of the customisation.

Microsoft has, on the other hand, a different approach and it is targeting cellphone market through Smartphone 2002 OS, billed as Windows Powered software. This OS is a part of the .Net strategy and has been supported by a major UK-based mobile service provider Orange. They have made their presence felt with Smartphone 2002-based Z100 device from Sendo, Taiwan’s HTC, the maker of iPaq. By all accounts, it works well, but like others of its ilk, it is expensive.

Palm and Linux

Palm has made an impact with the well-received Treo line from Handspring, including the Handspring Treo 270, a compact, colour communicator that integrates a mobile phone, wireless applications like email, short messaging and Internet browsing, with an organiser. Samsung has a mobile phone, SPH-i330, again with colour and high-speed 3G connectivity and functionality like sending and receiving e-mail and faxes anytime. Sony’s new Palm powered NZ90 CLIÉ is one of the best multimedia phones, with a 2 mega-pixel camera, Palm OS 5, and a 200 MHz ARM processor. It is also a very expensive device.

Linux is also making inroads as an OS for mobile phones. Recent reports say chipmaker Texas Instruments and device maker NEC are working on developing Linux-based cellphone, in collaboration with Monta Vista Software, an American company. The open-source OS is considered less expensive than anything developed privately, though there are concerns about security, which is also a key issue. A Linux-based device, Paron MPC, is a handheld that combines the functions of a PDA, Bluetooth wireless access, cellular telephone, and biometric fingerprint recognition, along with a security-oriented hardware/software architecture.

What users want

As in the real world, these are baffling choices. Eventually users want only to see that their instruments work well, and they really don’t give much thought to the kind of operating systems that are used. However, an OS is the base of interfacing not only with the person using the instrument, it is also necessary to expand the reach of the device, from cellphone to PDA and thereafter to a computer. Imagine if you could integrate all these electronic devices seamlessly.

After all, there are such things as universal TV remotes, and with the right software, you can even turn your PalmV into a remote for TV and other devices. Why can’t all cellphones work like each other?

The answer to that is that manufacturers want to differentiate from each other and instead of giving more features, they push for their way of doing things, which, of course, all claim is the best for setting the world standard.

Hedging their bets

There is no doubt that over a period of time the market will stabilise, but till then even the manufacturers are covering their bets. To take the example of Samsung, the latest entrant for the Symbian bandwagon, it has licensed both Microsoft’s software and that of Palm Inc. for different versions of its phones intended for various kinds of buyers.

What about you? Stick to what you can afford right now, chances are that it is not one of the technology demonstrating smart phones, but what is called a plain vanilla phone. And you know what; vanilla is a flavour that has given a lot of pleasure to millions of palates for generations!