Insight 2

This article was written by David Wood and published on the Symbian corporate website in October 2005, with the following description

David Wood talks us through smartphone platformization and how the maxim of ‘developing once and using often’ is driving down costs and driving up choice for the industry.

Insight 2: Inside out. David Wood on platformization

You can think about mobile phones either from the outside in, or from the inside out. Users mainly take the outside in viewpoint. The items that interest users about a mobile phone tend to be on its outside:

  • The external hardware – the screen, the audio, any folding and sliding mechanisms, the camera, the plug-in storage disk, the keypad, etc
  • The visible and auditory aspects of the applications and services – the parts of the phone functionality that interact with your senses, such as application graphics and user interfaces.

With few exceptions, users are much less interested in the insides of the phone – the technology that makes it all work. Users are especially uninterested in the question of the operating system inside the phone – so much so that it often comes as a surprise to people that operating systems could be important in mobile phones. Most consumers have bought mobile phones without giving a moment’s thought to what (if any) operating system might be included in the phone. After all, no-one asks about the operating system in a TV, or in a car, before buying it. Why should it be different with a mobile phone?

However, three recent events, in three separate countries within the space of a few days, are united by one common underlying theme. That theme is the inside out view of mobile phones, in which the operating system becomes of the greatest significance. The first event was a press release in Japan by the network operator NTT DoCoMo, announcing the breakthrough new phones in their FOMA 902i series. The second event was a remarkable presentation at the Orange Code Camp, at Opio near Nice in southern France, setting out Orange’s vision for how mobile phones should be built in the future. The third event was an extensive set of demos and seminars at the Smartphone Show in London, including the first public speech / presentation by Symbian’s new CEO, Nigel Clifford.

The FOMA 902i phones come jam-packed with new features including: a “PushTalk” walkie-talkie-style communication service, a “ToruCa” information capture service for gathering information in shops about items on sale merely by waving the phone over suitable display units, enhanced options for using stylish emoticons in text messaging and email, a “G-Guide” service that provides up-to-date information about the schedule and contents of TV programs, and the possibility of assigning more than one phone number to a single handset. These new features coexist alongside numerous other features carried forward from previous highly successful FOMA handsets.

Phones that have as many features as the FOMA 902i phones need an operating system, to occupy the space in between the phone applications and the raw power of the phone hardware. The operating system has two roles:

  • to avoid different applications clashing with one another and preventing, for example, two applications from drawing to the same part of the screen at the same time, or storing data to the same part of memory storage, or interfering with each other’s network communications
  • to make it easy for the applications on the phone to take advantage of the power of the phone hardware and the phone network.

Without an operating system, all the different applications would have to delve into the lower levels of the phone hardware and phone network, and would need a huge amount of knowledge of these elements. They would also need to know about all the other applications in order to co-exist peacefully with them. The greater the number of applications on a phone, the greater is the need for a sophisticated operating system. But notice three key points about the features on the F902i phones:

  • many of these handset features depend on services provided or co-ordinated by the network operator, NTT DoCoMo
  • these handset features are available on a range of six different handsets, created by six different phone manufacturers
  • the individual handsets vary among themselves considerably, from the outside perspective.

This requires more than just the six individual handsets each having a sophisticated operating system. Grounds of efficiency strongly suggest that the handsets should share the same operating system. If they share the same operating system:

  • the considerable development effort for all these features, on all these different handsets, can be shared across the different projects
  • third party companies who actually provide the features (such as Ecrio, who provide the PushTalk service) can develop the core of their applications just once, not multiple times for each handset.

That’s why the FOMA 902i phones manufactured by Fujitsu, Mitsubishi, Sharp, and Sony Ericsson, are all based on Symbian OS. (And it’s no surprise that Ecrio is a Platinum Partner of Symbian.) The insides of these phones are substantially the same. But the outsides vary considerably.

Although he was speaking in a different continent, Yves Maitre, VP of Devices at Orange, also highlighted the importance of careful choice of operating system for mobile phones. Like NTT DoCoMo, Orange has a fascinating set of ideas about the features and usability of the mobile phones it wants to promote on its network. Like NTT DoCoMo, Orange wishes to promote phones from a number of different handset vendors. And again like NTT DoCoMo, Orange recognises the increasing efficiency gains that can result if the industry standardises on mobile phone operating system. Speaking during the opening pow-wow of an Orange-run event called Code Camp which was attended by upwards of 400 developers and industry representatives, Maitre had a few passionate pieces of advice:

  • Make it simple
  • Collaborate
  • Realise that, over the next year or two, it won’t just be high-end smartphones that are built from industry standard open operating systems; mid-range phones will also benefit from this kind of platformization
  • Standardise on the winning open operating systems – the whole industry will profit.

In his keynote address at the Smartphone Show, Symbian CEO Nigel Clifford gave another perspective on why network operators will increasingly prefer their new phones to be built from common operating systems. There are significant time-to-market benefits from adopting an industry-standard mobile phone operating system. Compared to using in-house proprietary systems, it can be around three months quicker and cost 40% less to create a phone using an industry standard platform. Research carried out by Northstream and Nokia bears this out. Among savings in other parts of the development lifecycle, there are particular savings in the effort to create and test new applications.

Interestingly, there are two kinds of saving:

  • Development costs shared between more than one handset manufacturer – new features are implemented just once, but are available to more than one manufacturer
  • Development costs shared over time – the initial effort to adopt a new platform is repaid over a number of follow-on and variant models that manufacturers can release over the months and years ahead. (For example, Fujitsu has already launched no fewer than twelve different Symbian OS phone models.)

The reduction in the effort to create new handsets is only one of the reasons why network operators are progressively favouring open operating systems. Other important reasons include:

  • Reduced costs to support and maintain phones – if need be, patches can be transmitted wirelessly to fix a defect (avoiding the costs of an expensive product recall), and the remote viewing capabilities of advanced operating systems allow over-the-air resolution of many user queries
  • Increased revenues – the richer features of these advanced phones lead users to spend more time making and receiving phone calls and transmitting data
  • Greater ease of rolling out “new services on old phones”, whereby network operators can make attractive new features available to phone users, without the users needing to go to the expense of purchasing a new phone that contains these features.

The special advantage of Symbian OS is that, whilst the insides of phones can be the same (namely, the operating system, telephony services, communications services, system services, and application services), the outsides of the phones can vary extensively. Users have plenty of choice, in the matters that are important to them but the phones can readily share data, applications, and services. That was apparent from a wide range of demos of Symbian OS phones at the Smartphone Show. It ’s no wonder that Symbian OS has the lion’s share of the existing smartphone market, and is widely tipped by industry analysts to take the lion’s share of the mid-range phone market as platformization extends its reach.

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