Symbian licenses Microsoft ActiveSync protocol

Symbian Ltd. has licensed a protocol from Microsoft Corp. to allow users of mobile phones based on the Symbian operating system to synchronize e-mail and other personal data with servers running Microsoft's Exchange Server 2003.

Symbian plans to develop software based on Exchange Server's ActiveSync protocol, for synchronizing e-mail, calendar, contacts and other personal information management (PIM) data, and will make the software available to handset makers for use in future Symbian-based smart phones.

"The time frame for when products using the protocol make it to market is still not defined," said Simon Garth, Symbian's vice president of marketing. Based on past experience, it should take about a year, he said.

Symbian and Microsoft are not releasing any details of the financial terms of the deal, Garth said.

The licensing agreement follows a similar deal announced by Nokia Corp. -- the primary seller of devices using the Symbian OS -- and Microsoft at the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes last month. Phones based on Nokia's Series 60 and Series 80 smart phone software will be able to use ActiveSync to synchronize information with Exchange servers over the air.

"Symbian was set up as a type of rival to Microsoft when it launched in the late 1990s, but this year there has been an acknowledgement by all the big mobile vendors and operators that no one company can go it alone," said Geoff Blaber, an analyst for European mobile devices at IDC. "Symbian can't do everything independently, and I think they understand that. By adding ActiveSync, Symbian is just making the experience that little bit easier for the end user."

Symbian already supports a number of other e-mail synchronization protocols such as Blackberry Connect from Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) and the Open Mobile Alliance Data Synchronization protocol.

According to Blaber, it is in Symbian's best interest to offer consumers a wealth of applications. Additionally, its licensing agreement with Microsoft works well as a way for Symbian to reach out to enterprise users, particularly those who use Microsoft's Outlook e-mail and calendar applications on their work desktops and are interested in receiving that data wirelessly over network computers that run Microsoft's Exchange Server.

However, Symbian will still face an uphill climb in reaching enterprise users because it is up to the IT departments within companies to decide if they want to open up Exchange Server to Symbian devices, said Tony Cripps, an analyst with Ovum Ltd. "It's important for Symbian to have this deal, but it is still under the technology radar of most CIOs (chief information officers). Symbian is not seen as a piece of enterprise technology. Blackberry remains overwhelming popular as a way for accessing e-mail on the move," he said.

The Nokia agreement with Microsoft was compelling within the mobile industry for the bridge it established between the competing companies, Cripps said. However, the scale of Symbian's deal with Microsoft makes it more significant as Symbian devices have a wider market reach, he said.

Cripps added that it's of note that the Symbian licensing agreement with Microsoft is only applicable to Exchange Server 2003 users, thereby cutting out a sizeable user base on earlier versions of Exchange. Furthermore, since the system isn't push-enabled, it doesn't match the e-mail functionality in Blackberry devices.

Symbian's Garth said that those limitations were part of the characteristics of Exchange Server. "Exchange Server 2003 is the only one that actively supports ActiveSync," Garth said.

"From Symbian's point of view, though the agreement with Microsoft is fairly straightforward, this is really completing the picture and demonstrates that Symbian is suitable for the enterprise," Garth said.

Representatives from Microsoft could not immediately be reached for comment.

Both Cripps and Blaber said it is likely Symbian licensees will play on the flexibility of smart phones by adding more functions such as push technology to devices within the near future. "On the smart phone side, I think we'll see more things like bundling of push e-mail clients that are enabled out of the box," Blaber said.

Despite the increased cooperation within the mobile industry this year, Nokia noted last month that there are limits to such partnerships and said it has no plans for building Microsoft's operating system software into its products.

Although Microsoft, of Redmond, Washington, retains less than 1 percent of market share in operating software for mobile phones, the deal with Symbian doesn't indicate any sort of concession by Microsoft, Cripps said. "It is my understanding that this deal was very much driven by Microsoft's server business," he said.

Blaber agreed that Tuesday's licensing agreement between Symbian and Microsoft was not necessarily an indication that Microsoft has scaled down its designs on the mobile device market or that Symbian will go farther down the Windows road. "Personally, I think agreements on applications are as far as it's going to go," Blaber said.

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