My mobile has an operating system?

I didn’t realise that.
How obvious your OS is depends on the type of phone you have. Most handsets have an OS sitting very much in the background, often a proprietary piece of software created by the phone-maker. They’re important but not the next battleground.

And that is where exactly?
Smart phones.

What are they?
A smart phone differs from what you might consider a fairly fancy mobile phone – what some experts might even call a feature phone if it includes a camera, high-quality screen and some other functionality such as a diary – in that it allows applications to be downloaded onto it, usually by synching with a desktop computer or over-the-air using a mobile network.

Sure, most smart phones look pretty high end and are more expensive than many other handsets but this is the feature that says sets them apart.

Not things like PDA functionality or being 3G?
No. Most smart phones are great at PIM – personal information management – and offer all sorts of other applications but those things in themselves aren’t the defining characteristics. And forget 3G. Some smart phones will work on 3G networks – in some ways better than they can now – but most 3G phones on the market now aren’t smart phones. The same goes for GSM versus CDMA versus anything else – smart phones will be sold for different network types.

And this smart phone market will be big?
Yes: analyst figures tell us that, as well as gut instinct.

And this is why we have companies battling over the brains of the current and future smart phone?

And they are…?
Realistically from four or five main camps, and not all are companies. We have Symbian – a UK-headquartered joint venture between major mobile handset makers, most notably Nokia – then there’s Microsoft, PalmSource, Linux and possibly another OS that may well emerge.

Sounds pretty heavyweight.
It is. Most of the attention for the long term focuses on Symbian and Microsoft. Microsoft is investing a lot of money and effort into this area and is keeping established mobile players on their toes. It isn’t just taking Windows Pocket PC mobile and wireless – or its CE core – but pushing its Windows Mobile OS, with some success.

Symbian has been around for five or six years and taken its time. But it is now seeing shipments of terminals that use the Symbian OS ramping up, and not just from manufacturers who are stakeholders such as Nokia and Sony Ericsson. LG from South Korea was a major addition to its roster this year and the Japanese market, where 3G phones from vendors such as Fujitsu are already using Symbian, is also key.

So it’s between them?
Some pundits would have you believe that. But consider the other three parties I mentioned. PalmSource is established as the guardian of the Palm OS and is increasingly dedicating its resources towards the smart phone space. Many times more mobile phones ship every year than have shipped in the entire history of PDAs and it only needs, say, 10 per cent of those shipments to be smart phones and a portion of those to be Palm OS-based and the company is quids in. The Treo 600 from PalmOne, for example, has proven to be a popular smart phone, especially in the US, and manufacturers such as Samsung also license the Palm OS.

The others? Are they wildcards?
Well, if we look at Linux there are many question marks. An insider at one major manufacturer recently questioned whether that open source OS can be made to work well on small devices. Some players, such as Sharp, have tried this route with mixed success and others, such as Motorola, clearly believe this is a sensible bet for the future, especially for the Chinese market, already the world’s largest in mobile units. That US stalwart even left Symbian on the basis of this strategy, though it still uses Symbian as well.

Your hunch with Linux?
It will happen on mobile devices. The footprint argument won’t hold as we see increasingly more powerful processors and memory. Microsoft and Symbian will be keeping an eye out for those that back the Linux horse.

And who else?
Well, it is feasible that another player or open source grouping will rise up. Several proprietary OSes could try to make the leap to smart phones but most major phone-makers are in the Microsoft, Palm or Symbian camps – or a combination of the three. (Not looking any particular direction, Samsung.)

One new option not on the radar screen of most users is a Java-focused start-up called SavaJe. It has VC funding and also the venture arms of Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone are along for the ride. It has even started optimising its software for the hardware from key chip-makers Intel and TI.

Should IT departments care about which OS end users have?
Ultimately it may well be a factor. Some organisations already have a preference for Microsoft or Palm software, based on experiences with PDAs. (See this exclusive from 2002 about the BBC.) Others are much more familiar in Nokia territory from the mobile phone world and so Symbian might become the corporate choice.

It should be noted that to many organisations, assuming all OSes work OK with email software such as Exchange and other applications they use, some of which will be homegrown, the user interface may be just as important. Nokia is pushing its Series 60 UI for Symbian phones, though Symbian’s own UIQ unit is another option. The latter, like the Palm OS, allows for use with a stylus, something that is missing from Windows Mobile Smartphone right now and devices such as the popular Blackberry from RIM, which does not categorise as a smart phone.

So it shouldn’t be left to end users to decide?
It is a supremely confident or foolish IT department that allows that to happen. As these devices become more complex, or smarter, they are small computers with all the attendant management headaches. Allowing every end user to choose whether they run Windows, Mac OS, Linux or something else on their desktop just wouldn’t be allowed. We’ll increasingly see this with smart phones – only unlike a desktop PC, many see a phone as a piece of personal tech they take everywhere.