Microsoft, with its Windows CE software, has been slowly working its way into the handheld computer market for years. But this year the competition is set to heat up as Microsoft introduces devices that compete more directly with Symbian.
"No one company can lay out all the answers and get it right the first time," Levin said. "One size doesn't fit all in this market. There are one billion people using mobile phones this year. This is not the PC world."
Two new versions of Windows CE arriving this year are designed for voice-enabled handheld computers and mobile phones with PDA (personal digital assistant) functions, respectively called Pocket PC Phone Edition and Windows-powered Smartphone 2002.
Symbian has been around for four years as a joint venture among the U.K.'s Psion, which supplied the EPOC operating system on which Symbian is based, and major mobile phone manufacturers such as Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola and most recently Siemens. But while Microsoft-powered devices tend to have a uniform user interface and to carry the Windows name prominently, Symbian-powered phones carry no Symbian branding. This is left to the phone makers and network operators.
Now Levin, who took the chief executive post earlier this year, is stepping up the rhetoric to Microsoft-like levels.
"We will put the Symbian OS into every phone," he declared.
At the conference, Symbian touted the linchpins of its strategy for selling smart phones to the masses, including 3D games, Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), built-in digital cameras and productivity applications.
Upcoming Symbian devices from Sony Ericsson and Nokia are much more consumer-focused than such efforts as Nokia's Communicator or Ericsson's R380. They will sport flashy industrial design and color screens and will come in smaller dimensions.
"The largest revenue opportunity is the consumer market, and the business user is a consumer," said Paul Cockerton, Symbian's head of global corporate communications.
Fight not settled
On its side, Symbian has the economic and distribution muscle of the handset makers, who sell to a market many times bigger than the PDA market.
However, the fight is far from settled. Microsoft has unique access to the corporate market through its software business, and its Pocket PC operating system has made headway in corporations partly because the devices are manufactured by major PC companies, notably Compaq Computer.
The network operators are also a wild card, committing to no single operating system company. British carrier MmO2, for example, is making a Pocket PC Phone Edition device called Xda for launch later this year.
"It isn't yet a clear path for Symbian," said Tim Mui, analyst with market researcher IDC.
The shadow of Microsoft was noticeable everywhere at the Symbian conference. Microsoft employees handed out Pocket PC 2002 CD-ROMs to attendees as they walked from the train platform to the venue. Microsoft even timed its own mobility developer conference for last week, coinciding with Symbian's event.
Also shipping this year is U.K. handset maker Sendo's Z100, which is powered by Microsoft Smartphone 2002.
For developers, there is not yet a clear winner, forcing them to continue developing for multiple software and hardware platforms.
Fathammer, which makes a 3D engine that can be customized for use in different games, makes versions for Linux and Pocket PC as well as Symbian OS, and the company also fine-tunes the versions for different hardware platforms.
"We have to put our eggs in all of the baskets," said Ville Vaten, Fathammer project manager.
ZDNet U.K.'s Matthew Broersma reported from London.