Copyright 2002

[ April 26th 2002 ]

The mobile Internet has been slow to get off the ground, according to new research, but software makers are becoming ever more fanatic behind the scenes to gain support in an industry they view ready to take off. Just last week, Microsoft's Juha Christensen invited the 20 biggest software developers allied to arch rival Symbian to breakfast in an effort to win them over, much to the chagrin of Symbian executives when they found out.

It is the latest stab below the belt in a battle that is developing nasty edges as the two companies fight to become the dominant software provider for hundreds of millions of future mobile phones and organizers that will be able to play games, music and video clips and receive multimedia messages.

David Wood, Symbian's man in charge of partnerships, evangelism and research, said that had he been Juha, he would also have been interested to talk to Symbian's developers. But still, frustration about Microsoft's infamous competitive behavior slipped out. "Microsoft can invite our partners to breakfast, but they can't buy the trust that we have," Wood added.

It may seem an unfair fight between David and Goliath. But in this case Symbian, which employs just a few hundred staff, is not alone. It is financially backed by the world's four largest handset makers and its software is licensed by even more. Symbian is slowly learning Microsoft's tactic to shout about every victory. "We're the industry's choice," David Levin, Symbian's new chief executive, boasted at a conference this week. He "called to arms" 1,500 software engineers to write programs for mobile devices that will link consumers and businesses.

The relevant question, he added, is not how the market for mobile data can grow, but how fast. "We already know which operating system the device makers will use: Symbian," he said. It is too early to call a winner in an industry that is just starting. European wireless carriers have been slow to promote faster Internet service for cellphones, Britain's research group Analysys found this week.

One year after commercial introduction, only one million out of some 300 million Western European cellphone users subscribe to general packet radio system (GPRS), the upgrade from the current standard that gives always-on and fast access to data services such as email and Web sites. They could have had 2.5 times as many GPRS subscribers had they offered better services and handsets, Analysys's researcher Katrina Bond said. But it is early days for the system, and it is only now that handsets in Europe are coming out that resemble those that have made i-mode in Japan the world's most successful mobile Internet.

The new handsets include big color screens and Java software, which allows users to download new games and other programs and runs on top of Symbian or Microsoft operating systems. Mobile operators and thousands of mobile software developers flocked to conferences in London last week, organized by both Symbian and Microsoft.

Developers demonstrated fast new games, including pinball, shoot-em-ups, racing simulators and even Tomb Raider, indicated the mobile phone industry is everything but moribund. "Finally we see these products coming to work," said Thor Gunnarsson, director of strategic marketing at London-based mobile software maker Ideaworks3D, which writes programs for devices based on Microsoft as well as Symbian operating systems.

Few are so foolish to believe that Microsoft will give up even before the market is here. They remember browser-maker Netscape and word processing software company WordPerfect, both of which owned their market until Microsoft came along. "This is going to be the biggest showdown between competing software platforms in years," one software developer says.

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