Motorola sure gave us some interesting news today. The quarterly loss of nearly $400 million and thousands of layoffs always jump out at you, but, digging a little deeper, I couldn't help but wonder where Symbian fits into Moto's plans.Obviously, the major news is that the company will be betting big on Google's open source Android operating system for its middle-of-the-road line of phones. Since the release of the G1 by T-Mobile, we've seen Asus, Hop-on, and OpenMoko throw their hats in the Android ring. But none of these companies really holds the weight of the likes of Motorola, which is still the fourth-largest cell phone manufacturer in the world. That kind of scale and distribution is exactly what Android needs to be successful. Not to mention Motorola could potentially throw Android onto other consumer electronics like set-top boxes.
But I'm still a little puzzled by the decision. I'm playing with a G1 right now, and like everyone else, I think it's rough, but shows tremendous promise. With that said, I still think it's a bit risky to essentially put the future of the company on this untested OS. It's definitely not a safe move, and you have to give new CEO Sanjay Jha credit for taking bold actions in such desperate times.
What perplexes me is that Motorola said it's going to simplify its line with its homegrown P2K OS for simple phones, Android for entry-level smartphones, and Windows Mobile for its high-end products. Where does Symbian fit into this? It's confirmed that it'll ditch Symbian UIQ (good riddance), but Motorola's a charter member of the Symbian Foundation, and I've been to a few conferences where Motorola was a strong advocate for it.
While Symbian may not get much respect or acclaim in Silicon Valley, it's still the dominant smartphone operating system worldwide by a large margin. It also has a world-class community of developers and some really good apps. I can't say that Symbian doesn't have its problems (somewhat dated UI, too many variants), but it's a powerful system that's only going to get much better by being open source. I guess it's not that much of a surprise considering the company's VP of software platforms recently said that she expects to see a "sharp contraction" in the number of mobile platforms, particularly the variants of mobile Linux.
Of course, the open source Symbian won't be on handsets until 2010 at the earliest, and it will take a few years for it to be optimized by the community. Perhaps Jha realizes that Motorola doesn't have the luxury to wait that long for the OS to gel, as the handset division has lost billions over the last few years. It could also be a sign that cell phone makers may not be that comfortable betting too much on the upcoming Symbian because of its history with Nokia.
That's just my rampant speculation at the moment, and I'm working hard to track down the "why" of the shift. Jha also let it slip that Windows Mobile 6 will have another upgrade before we see the next full version. During the third-quarter conference call, Jha said:
Windows Mobile 6 has not delivered the experience that I think Apple has been able to deliver, but as you look at the plan that is Windows Mobile 7 and even 6.5, I think there are significant new added features which will help the platform.
Besides the refreshingly honest take on the competition, there was no more information on what users can expect from Windows Mobile 6.5. The current version is 6.1, and besides an extremely clunky user interface, I find it to be a solid OS. While the major overhaul will come with version 7 (looks like second half of 2009), 6.5 could bring some needed improvements. At the top of my list would be fixing the atrocious pocket Internet Explorer.