---------- ---------- PC Pro Realworld Computing: Paul Lynch - PDAs

At the moment, it looks as if Symbian have all the smart money on taking the mobile phone market. The alternatives are Palm and Microsoft: Palm have already produced a mobile phone with Qualcomm, but their PalmOS doesn't show the voice oriented features and ease of development of Symbian's far more mature operating system. Microsoft seem to have missed the boat by ignoring the mobile phone manufacturers, and CE has lacked the critical real time features since its introduction. However, Microsoft have also produced a mobile phone, jointly with Siemens, have been promising real time for the last several years, and are rumoured to have suddenly taken an interest in this market, showing prototypes of new CE models to phone manufacturers.

However, Symbian have not yet delivered a phone based on their OS; the Ericsson R380 isn't due until next year. The phone manufacturers are notoriously uncommitted to any single operating system, and will readily license a new one for a single product release. This means both that it is more likely that they form an alliance for expediency with Microsoft, perhaps for a single model, and that they will not be swayed by any bogus arguments that the Windows user interface is desirable on small devices: it isn't. In this market, software developers really shouldn't count their chickens until they are hatched, and the eggs are individual mobile phones in the hands of consumers.

The main reason that Psion have had a shot at this market at all is that the usual American practice of jumping the gun on standardisation has lead to a fragmented US market, but a global market unified mainly around GSM. Europe has had close to 100% coverage for several years, and even now an American network is proud if it can boast better than 80% coverage - which early Orange and One-to-One users in the UK know is almost as bad as no coverage at all. As a result, the European market has been able to support local developers for some time, and the American software giants have been blind to the opportunity.

The current non-wired PDA market is small in mobile phone terms: 2 to 5 million as against several hundred million units. But in the immediate future most phones will take on PDA attributes, and most PDAs will develop wireless networking using largely mobile phone technology. New wireless protocols for both local area (Bluetooth) and wide area (several standards are being implemented at the moment) have the megabit capacities that will make this a convenient reality, instead of the awkward, slow, multibox shuffle that is required today. These PDAs will be sold as phones, and will be made by mobile phone manufacturers. So IDC reports that postulate a mere 20 million market for PDAs in five years time may be both right and wrong, and certainly demonstrate the futility of market surveys in an evolving market: PDA-only units may sell that poorly, but mobile phones will do all that PDAs currently do (and, significantly, will run the same OSes as current PDAs). According to Ericsson, the phone market is currenly in excess of about 200 million units, and is projected to reach 600 million in 2001.

PalmOS is great for current PDAs; it has the virtues of simplicity and compactness. However, it hasn't yet been adapted to support proper real time operation, colour, or voice telephony. Palm understand, better than most computer manufacturers, the mobile phone market, and often compare their marketing to that of a phone manufacturer; but they still have to deliver a technology appropriate for the application. Microsoft don't seem to get any of this at all, but their usual 'Chinese water torture' approach to incremental development, and sheer persistence, could easily get them there. Symbian, however, have a released operating system that has both the stability of long development and testing, and an understanding of the requirements of its co-owners. Their approach to the support of multiple form factors is far better, and they already have toolkits for the main technologies: telephony abstraction, GSM, WAP and so on. This is the golden opportunity for them.

Topics covered this month:

Contacts mentioned in this month's column:

WAP Forum: http://www.wapforum.org
Opera Software: http://www.operasoftware.com/alt_os.html
vMessage: http://www.imc.org
AvantGo.com: http://www.avantgo.com

Words and design by:
Paul Lynch
Last updated: August 19, 1999

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