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Aiming to push its world-leading smartphone operating system into the hands of hundreds of millions of new mass-market customers, Symbian on Monday debuted the latest version of the platform, the OS v9.5.
Designed to allow manufacturers to build "smartphones at feature-phone prices," the new operating system was introduced by Jorgen Behrens, executive VP of marketing at the London-based software developer, at the Smartphone Summit in Orlando, Fla., a curtain-raiser for the big CTIA Wireless 2007 expo that begins Tuesday.
Founded in 1998, Symbian today controls around 70% of the worldwide market for operating systems for advanced mobile devices, known as smartphones. Though it has only around a 10% market share in North America, where the popular BlackBerry device from Research In Motion continues to outstrip competing devices, Symbian dominates the market in Europe and in the Asia/Pacific region, which is by far the No. 1 market for smartphones. According to Todd Kort, principal analyst at Gartner, 60% of the world's smartphones are sold in Asia. Japan alone has nearly 30% of the market.
In general, smartphones are mobile devices that run complete operating system software, such as Symbian, the Palm OS, or Windows Mobile. "Feature phones" are enhanced cell phones that have limited Web-browsing capabilities and the like. Those distinctions, however, are blurring with the release of powerful consumer-oriented devices like the BlackBerry Pearl from RIM, the highly anticipated iPhone from Apple, Nokia's N77, and the Motorizr Z8 from Motorola. The latter two were introduced last month at 3GSM in Barcelona, Spain.
It is this trend that Symbian, which says that more than 110 million devices running on the Symbian platform have been shipped to date, hopes to capitalize on with its new operating system.
"Many analysts see 2007 as the year of 'cheap and slim' " devices, said Symbian CEO Nigel Clifford at the Summit, in introducing the operating system. "But we also see it as a period of these enabling circumstances that will drive the penetration of smartphones."
He listed those circumstances as the launch of an array of new devices from various manufacturers; the continued growth in importance of mobile business to enterprises; the spread of Internet services, a.k.a. Web 2.0, to the mobile world; and the advent of "predictable and affordable pricing" for smartphones.
"Consumer demand will follow," Clifford added.
For Symbian, which is 61% owned by device vendors Nokia and Sony Ericsson, the penetration of the mass consumer market is a crucial next phase of growth. The company says manufacturers shipped 51.7 million smartphones running on the Symbian OS in 2006, and Clifford expects that number to continue to grow as consumers, particularly ones in developing markets like China and India, choose smartphones over conventional cellular devices. One of Symbian's goals, he said, is for smartphones (mostly running Symbian software) to have one-third of the overall mobile phone market within the next five years.
For that to happen, smartphones must sell for much less than, for instance, the $500 starting price for Apple's iPhone.
One way Symbian's new operating system will hold down the cost of phones is through what the company calls "demand paging" -- essentially a way for the operating system to limit the memory requirements of applications running on the phone. Along with automatic defragmentation of random-access memory, demand paging can reduce RAM requirements by 25% to 30%.
"A software engineer [developing smartphone applications] could do that themselves," said David Wood, executive VP for research at Symbian, "and it's what we used to do in the old days. But the computer can do it better."
A side effect is that the Symbian operating system continues to subsume functions once handled at the applications level -- a result that Wood says is entirely intentional.
"The OS has always grown by anticipating the needs of the applications -- and of the end user," Wood said.
In the United States, in the Windows desktop environment, that's usually known as "feature creep" -- and it's not a term of endearment. "We've been very aware of that danger," Woods acknowledged. "As a general principle we only allow the OS to grow by 1 Mbyte of code a year."
One megabyte of code and 60 million or so devices a year. That sounds like a strategy for world domination.