Symbian cell-through

If I were a betting man, I'd say the gorillas are about to show Microsoft how to sell a billion potent computers disguised as handsets.

I've travelled to Hannover to cover developments of interest to Windows users at CeBit, indisputably the world's largest computer trade show.

More than three-quarters of a million souls wander its 27 convention halls each year. Regrettably, only 1% of CeBit's visitors are Americans. That's a shame because hot technology often bursts forth in the European market first, taking a year or two to be adapted for the US.

I wrote earlier this year that devices based on a lean, clean operating system named Symbian had suddenly started outselling both Palms and Pocket PCs in Europe during the third quarter of 2001. This growth spurt was largely driven by the introduction of the Nokia 9210 Communicator, a cellphone that unfolds to reveal a QWERTY keyboard, a bright colour screen and a wireless browser.

Now the Sony Ericsson P800, another Symbian cellphone that sports PDA features, has just been announced. Flipping down this device's 10-digit keypad gives you access to a colourful, touch-sensitive organiser screen. The "world phone" integrates a tiny camera and supports MMS (multimedia messaging service). That means you can email personal images and sound as well as text.

I wrote in that earlier column that we'll someday enjoy laptop power in our watches. Any full-size screen and keyboard we sit down at will (with the owner's permission) work wirelessly as a front end to the CPU on our wrist. We won't have to lug around laptops, transformers and cables anymore.

Until a Sony Vaio can squeeze into a Rolex, however, our killer gizmos will be "smart phones" -- cells that compute. This is a shift Microsoft is missing.

"For the next 12 months, the OS of choice is probably Symbian," says Marco Boerries, chief executive of VerdiSoft, a Palo Alto-based company that networks cellphones, routers and everything in between. "They did a good job of integrating J2ME [Java 2 Micro Edition]" developer environment.

Nokia's US version, the 9290, goes on sale shortly. The Sony Ericsson ships globally, including in the US, after that. A few other 800-pound gorillas that have committed to Symbian are Fujitsu, Motorola, Panasonic, Sanyo and Siemens.

"Only 25 million PDAs shipped in 15 years," notes Symbian spokesman Paul Cockerton. "But last year alone, 400 million cellphones were sold."

Microsoft wants into this huge market and is pushing Windows Smart Phone code into Pocket PCs. For instance, Hewlett-Packard has a new, voice-enabled Jornada 928, which will ship in Europe (not the US) in July. But cellphone makers aren't going along. Only Sendo, a small UK startup, was showing a Windows-based cellphone at CeBit.

If I were a betting man, I'd say the gorillas are about to show Microsoft how to sell a billion potent computers disguised as handsets.

Send tips to Livingston. He regrets that he cannot answer individual questions.

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