There's a particular Road Runner cartoon where Wile E. Coyote thinks he's finally caught the pesky bird in an ACME safe. He locks it shut and covers it with ridiculous amounts of chains and padlocks.
After labouring away for several minutes, the furry fiend stands back to admire his work, only to discover that the road runner is standing right behind him.
That's the position the US Department of Justice (DoJ) finds itself in with Microsoft. The government thinks it has the company where it wants it. In fact, the Redmond boys have already moved on to pastures new. While the DoJ battles on to subdue Microsoft in the desktop arena, the company is up to its old tricks in the wireless access device field, which could leave users facing a Microsoft-dominated future when the technology is widely adopted by corporates.
The Symbian challenge
Microsoft's main competitors in the wireless device market is the Symbian group, an alliance of vendors including Ericsson and the UK's Psion, which is working to develop the next generation of wireless devices - smartphones. These are digital phones on wireless networks that have the capability to browse the internet, and receive and send faxes, simple messaging services, and email. They might even have scheduling and contact management software built in, according to Symbian.
But it's doubtful whether the alliance will survive to challenge Microsoft in this space. The joint venture, formed two years ago, has suffered a series of setbacks, which resulted in founding member Psion's market valuation plummeting last month.
The Microsoft that Symbian faces today is a very different competitor to that which it faced two years ago. The Redmond giant has released three versions of its Windows CE mobile operating system, and has demonstrated prototype global system for mobile phones, running Windows CE and Internet Explorer.
Through a series of alliances with the likes of Phone.com, Microsoft has a much stronger foothold in the smartphone market than in 1998. Carl Zetie, director of research with Giga Information Group, says: "Microsoft has done exactly what Symbian should have done. It released products that were just good enough to keep the market interested."
Symbian's engineer culture meant that the company waited until the technology was near perfect before releasing a product, says Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at analyst Gartner. "The engineers are miffed if the product isn't perfect and universally liked, whereas Microsoft used the market as a testing ground for immature products," he adds.
"This is make-or-break time," says Zetie. "They have to deliver products and win some mindshare or they'll be dead before they really begin."
That could be easier said than done, with Symbian's high-profile partners signing deals with the competition, and products still months away from the shelves. Worse, Symbian is losing key engineering staff at a rate of knots, including its entire Wap development team, in recent months.
Worse still, founding executive Juha Christensen intends to leave Symbian to take a position within Microsoft's wireless division in Sweden. Symbian is challenging the move in the courts, claiming a breach of contract. But even if it prevents Christensen from joining Microsoft, the alliance's troubles are far from over.
Deals and alliances
The biggest mistake Symbian made was to underestimate the promiscuity of the telecoms market, says Zetie. "It was a little naive not to suspect that there would be deals and alliances made all over the place," he says.
Last November, Nokia signed a deal with Palm Computing to develop smartphones using the PalmOS interface, which could lead to devices running the PalmOS at the expense of the Epoc operating system. Earlier this year, Ericsson signed a deal with Microsoft to develop mobile internet browsers and possibly handsets based on Microsoft's Mobile Explorer platform.
These deals have met with silence in the Symbian camp, a fatal mistake, says Dulaney. "The problem underlying everything else is incredibly poor marketing," he adds. "The chief executive has to accept the responsibility for letting the company be driven so far off the mark by its partners," he says.
Symbian's other problem is that, with the exception of two Ericsson smartphones and a Psion 5mx clone, it has not released a single one of its promised products. Analysts do not doubt that the company is working on some fine technology. The problem is that it will be released in a vastly different market to that in which it was conceived.
In the last 18 months, Palm Computing has shipped three new handheld devices, two of which have wireless capability. Last month, Palm announced that this functionality would be extended to all future products. This has given Palm a powerful market position, says Zetie. "The emotional affinity that many people felt for Symbian was based upon the fact that it stood up to the evil Microsoft Empire," he says. "In the intervening period, many have now transferred that allegiance to Palm."
With hindsight, expectations were too high of Symbian at its launch, says Zetie. "The fervour was emotional and the chances of it ever living up to the Microsoft-killer reputation were always slim," he says.
However, reports of Symbian's impending demise are exaggerated, says Dulaney. Symbian will regain much of its standing when products based on Version 6.0 of the Epoc operating system are released this autumn, he says. "There are some good products, and nobody else has a device to match what Symbian is proposing."
With these products, Gartner predicts that Symbian will account for 15 per cent of the 56 million smartphones and wireless personal digital assistants (PDAs) sold in 2003. With the consortium receiving $5 for every phone sold and double that amount for PDAs, Symbian can expect annual revenues of at least $300m in 2003, according to Gartner. "They won't be a monster player, but they certainly aren't dead yet," says Dulaney.
Symbian has a future, but its mistakes in the last two years have cost it dear. The alliance will account for 15 per cent of all smart devices in three years' time, up from only five per cent this year, but, says Dulaney: "The shame is that without all the other problems, it would have been double that."
Which is not good news for IT managers who view the future as a Utopia of open standards and healthy competition, free from monopoly. Even if it's cut up in bits and chained down with red tape, you can be sure that Microsoft will stay in the running.
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