Japan becoming key testing ground for Symbian’s open approach

Japan is one of Symbian’s key markets. 27 Symbian OS handsets have been released in Japan, primarily through operator NTT DoCoMo, which specified Symbian and Linux as its OS requirements for FOMA devices. DoCoMo also took the unusual step of licensing the Symbian OS – the only operator to do so – enabling it to provide manufacturers with a reference specification.

Both Japanese and European handset manufacturers have released Symbian OS devices in Japan. This requirement is providing an opportunity for Western vendors to gain a foothold in an extremely competitive market. Sony Ericsson, for instance, has just announced the SO902i in Japan – it looks similar to the K750i, but it has a 3.2 megapixel camera, Symbian OS 8.1 and support for DoCoMo’s new push-to-talk (PTT) service.

Operators outside Japan have not yet gone as far as DoCoMo is specifying exactly which OS handset manufacturers are allowed to use, not least because they lack the huge influence DoCoMo exercises in its unique home market. It is unlikely they will do so any time soon. In fact, the underlying OS has become secondary to the interface and applications layer – operators don’t really mind which operating system powers a device, so long as the handset manufacturers can deliver at the right price and run a standard J2ME environment.

Symbian, and its competitors in the OS space such as PalmSource, MontaVista, SavaJe and Microsoft, are obviously lobbying hard to convince the operators otherwise. They have a reasonable argument. While abstracting the applications layer from the OS provides a short-term fix for compatibility and opens mobile development to a wider range of programmers, there are always limitations on how much you can do without running native applications.

I’d like to see more efforts made in the operator community to support developers who want to take advantage of the full power of the OS. Much of the responsibility will fall on the OS providers themselves – and the likes of Symbian and PalmSource already have strong developer programmes – but this needs to translate into operator initiatives at the customer touchpoints. Simple things like pre-installing a digital application’s catalogue on the handset which updates over-the-air and keeps users up-to-date with the latest third party software; promoting applications in-store through kiosks; and, in the long-term, moving towards a standardised OS approach which provides the market scale developers need to justify an investment in a particular application.

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