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America Online dials in Symbian

AOL signs up with Microsoft's cell phone rival to connect handsets based on the Symbian operating system to AOL services.

America Online and Symbian, a developer of advanced cell phone operating systems, have announced a deal to bring AOL services to more cell phone subscribers.

As part of the agreement, announced Thursday, AOL engineers will create a one-size-fits-all version of AOL services that can be embedded into any Symbian phone. Handset makers that back the Symbian operating system, such as Motorola, Nokia and Ericsson, can build phones with AOL features more quickly if the development work already has been done, Symbian spokesman Peter Bancroft said.

AOL Time Warner's online division is already at work on Symbian versions of its popular instant message programs AOL Messenger and ICQ. But the Web provider also intends to make "a broad range of media and entertainment content" available to Symbian licensees in the future, according to Bill Schwebel, vice president of AOL Mobile.

The deal is a sign of the intensifying competition between makers and designers of "smart phones," which blend a cell phone and personal digital assistant into one device and come with capabilities like watching streaming video or sending wireless e-mails with attached sound recordings. With a flood of smart phones expected to hit the major markets this year, wireless carriers and other industry players are focused on finding content to lure new customers.

The first new services likely will involve instant messaging--the "training wheels" feature every wireless carrier uses to give subscribers a palatable taste of data-oriented phone services. AOL's Instant Messenger is the second of the major IM services to make the jump from cell phones to smart phones. Microsoft's MSN Messenger is offered as part of its Smartphone 2002 operating system, used to power cell phones sold by several U.S. and European carriers.

The deal underscores AOL's attempt to extend its instant messaging dominance to the wireless world. The company boasts the largest instant messaging population due to its ownership of both ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger.

Symbian, id="993073">Palmsource's Palm and Microsoft's Smartphone 2002 are the top three smart phone operating systems currently in use. Symbian dominates the market, and analysts expect it to keep its No. 2 position at least through 2007.