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Symbian CEO pitches middle ground between iPhone, Android

Nigel Clifford says that his company can help connect the world to the Net and that developers looking to create mobile apps have 200 million reasons to sign up with him.

Q&A For a man staring down Microsoft, Google, and Apple, Symbian's Nigel Clifford doesn't have the deer-in-the-headlights look as much as you might expect.

Perhaps because, at the moment, those three juggernauts are staring up at Symbian. Clifford, CEO of the company since 2005, has a dominant share of the market for smartphone operating systems and a strong backer in Nokia, the world's largest handset maker.

Nigel Clifford
Symbian CEO" />

Still, Symbian is sitting on top of the market at a time when it appears destined for change. Apple's entry into the market has galvanized the American consumer, who is barely aware of Symbian's dominant presence in Europe and Asia. Google threatens to come at Symbian from underneath, hoping to unify mobile Linux and teasing carriers with the promise of mobile advertising revenue. Research In Motion shows signs it might be able to add consumers to its legion of CrackBerry addicts. And Microsoft is Microsoft; it hasn't replicated its PC success in mobile phones but it continues to steadily improve Windows Mobile and is sitting on a load of cash.

Just before CTIA 2008 kicks off, Symbian hosted the Smartphone Summit in Las Vegas to discuss many of these topics and the broader market at large. I sat down with Clifford for a few minutes during the show, and here's a sampling of what we discussed.

In your view, should smartphones be like computers?
I think it is a very different world. You've got the smartphone, a device which has no access to main power, constrained memory, constrained screen size, and so the necessity of doing things very elegantly is an imperative.

But aren't you making little computers?
If you think back to the origins of Symbian, it came out of Psion, and those palmtops, the Psion 5 and Psion 3, were fully featured mini-computers. They had Word effects, Excel, equivalent data sheets, touch-screen QWERTY keyboard. What they didn't have was telephony.

One of the things our CTO is very clear about is that the multitasking capability on a phone is the most elegant thing on the planet. Because it has to deal with all this stuff going on, and then a call coming in, an SMS coming in, in the future, a video call coming in, maybe a location-based ping coming in from the side.

Why do you think you've gained such traction in Europe and around the world, and what do you have to do to get traction inside the U.S.?
For sure, the work with the top five handsets, including Nokia, has been important in creating attractive handsets that operators like to put on display, and put out at an attractive price because they know they're going to get data services revenue out of that.

In the U.S., there's perhaps been a different avenue for operators in terms of revenue growth for the last five or six years which has been pure subscriber growth. So, the order of the day has been subscribers at the lowest possible acquisition cost, which means the cheapest possible phone.

What we're now seeing is the end of the subscriber land grab--the saturation--so I think in the U.S. we're seeing some of the patterns in the rest of the world coming to bear. Where all of a sudden it becomes: how do I attract people from other people's networks, and how do I attract people to use their handsets on these more lucrative data services, to offset any slowing of the subscriber acquisition.

How does your relationship with Nokia affect your dealings with other handset makers? (Nokia owns 47.9 percent of the company.)
It doesn't. I mean, I guess you'd regard it as a proof point, the fact we can assist Nokia in making compelling devices and making compelling profits is a good thing to be able to put in front of others. But in terms of the business relationship and the ownership relationship, it's kept very, very separate.

We have a supervisory board. Around our governance table, we have Nokia, Sony-Ericsson, Samsung, Ericsson, Siemens, Panasonic--they came together to create an agnostic independent operating system. And that composition has broadly held together for 10 years.

One of the secrets is that we have a really good shareholders' agreement and a really good chairman who makes sure there's no tipping of any decision based on who you are, whether you're big or little, important or not important, shipping or not shipping.

We've had this notion of the mobile Internet for a long time, but now we're hearing more and more about the full Internet, getting the real thing onto your phone. Given the constraints that you face with these phones, how will that play out over time?
In terms of the experience, it's not inferior. If I've got the choice of booting up a laptop and going to the Internet or using the Internet that's resident on my phone, I wouldn't have any qualms about just reaching for my phone.

The intriguing thing to just think about is that there's maybe 3 billion subscribers in the world at the moment, and there's maybe 3 billion who are yet to have the privilege of having a mobile connection.

When you think about the Internet, I can see a whole generation--and maybe half of humanity--experiencing the Internet first through a mobile device.

I think the prospects of everyone in the world having power, and having a PC delivered, and having broadband delivered just isn't going to happen. It's going to happen over these mobile devices.

What do you think about the iPhone? And what do you think of Apple's participation in this market?
I think it validates what we've just been talking about, which is no fixed Internet brand--hardware, software, applications--can afford to ignore the mobile marketplace. Because ultimately the PC is going to be capped in terms of its marketplace.

It's not surprising you're seeing these legacy Internet and hardware brands coming into this mobile world and bringing their smarts with them.

One of the things that Apple is bringing with it is the walled garden, the closed system. What is the role for application development on these devices?
We have a different view. This is about innovations, letting a thousand flowers bloom, letting people experiment, providing SDKs (software development kits) and easy to use APIs (application programming interfaces), and working with a variety of different languages. A vibrant developer network is very important to us and our licensees.

Do you have to make tradeoffs then, with reliability, security, a different experience across these devices?
I think that not so much trade-offs as just different architectural decisions. Things like platform security, we've implemented because that was part of the assurance that operators wanted to have that these mobile computers weren't going to be used in a way that could be detrimental to their overall network security.

We're saying that our checks and balances are as deep and as light as possible in the operating system. Whereas maybe other people are saying, "You're playing in our territory," what we're saying is, "Have as much territory as you like and we'll make sure you're not near the cliff edge"--rather than as soon you get through the front gate, you're in my turf.

On the flip side, you've got Google and what they're trying to do with Android.
The experience we've got of the developer world is there's a curiosity market, which is "we'll go and play and see how interesting it is." But then there's a hard-core, "we actually want to make money out of this."

The advantage we can offer is 200 million devices shipped, 77 million last year. There's a platform for you to go and play with, and it's with a savvy audience, a really lucrative audience who's going to come and pay you if you can provide them a great application.

What do you think of Intel's interest in this market, with its Atom and Moorestown projects?
Maybe something that has gotten lost in the history is that we've cooperated and had projects with Intel. When I arrived (in 2005) we were talking putting Symbian on x86 architecture.

It's increasingly relative; the only SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) that's around right now is devices like the PC. It's increasingly beneficial to see what that SMP is going to be like when we play there.

Intel are certainly people that we talk to, but that (a Moorestown discussion) hasn't happened.