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What, No Android?

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)'s new Android software platform for mobile devices was notable by its absence at the Mobile Monday event on handset operating systems in London last night.

Instead Symbian Ltd. versus Linux dominated the debate in front of an audience of developers, mobile content providers, handset vendors, and operators. Photos of the session are here.

Granted Android is based on a Linux kernel, but still it received little more than cursory name-checks from presenters at the event, with comments typically along the lines of "and here's another Linux variant".

This is all the more curious since Google has targeted London and the vibrant U.K. developer community as a major source of raw material for its European and global mobile products. The search giant has been running a series of Android Code Days in the city that have been well attended by experienced and accomplished developers. Read one account of the day on the Nathalian blog .

So in the absence of Android, what did get discussed?

Symbian's executive vice president of research, David Wood, was in good form, explaining why mobile operating systems are "truly hard" and won't be commoditized anytime soon. Symbian devices were selling at a rate of three per second by the end of 2007 and have around 70 percent share of the smartphone OS market. Wood expects a billion smartphones to be in circulation by 2012 and expects Symbian to retain pole position. "The firm that has the largest market share will have the most used software on the planet," he noted.

Wood landed a few well-aimed jabs at mobile Linux for good measure. There are fundamental limitations to open source, which is cursed by fragmentation and reverse incentives for co-operation among larger players, he argued. "Mobile Linux has been fragmenting faster than its unifying is my empirical observation."

Karsten Homann of Trolltech, the Linux OS and developer tools company in the process of being acquired by Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) (Symbian's largest customer), came out fighting for mobile Linux, but failed to land a killer blow. It didn't help particularly that he revealed the firm had just shipped its first coffee-maker with embedded Linux. Where he did score was in talking up cross-platform tool-sets and APIs that allow developers create applications that work across different computing environments.

This cross-platform message was the centerpiece of the presentation from David Pollington, a Web technologies expert at Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) R&D. He articulated the exasperation operators felt about the diversity of operating systems in the market and difficulty of achieving a consistent set of end user services and experiences.

Nokia's S60, Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications 's UIQ, BlackBerry 's proprietary OS, Google's Android, Windows Mobile, Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL)'s OSX, and Java environments were all cited by Pollington, who said he also knows of two or three more unannounced platforms being developed "by big companies coming into this space."

Pollington's proposal is to develop a mobile Web runtime environment using Ajax technology. The idea is to build applications inside browsers to extract them from the underlying platform and make them easily portable in much the same way as Java promised but never achieved. "A Web runtime with well-defined APIs could help harness creativity from the Web space," said Pollington. It could have a performance benefit too, as using Ajax to send data in the background "gets round some of the inherent latency issues we have in mobile networks."

Pollington conceded Web apps wouldn't be as rich or sophisticated as native ones, but would be faster to develop and deploy and would have a wider reach. Examples he gave are the integration of Flickr photos with phone address books and eBay notifications on mobile home screens.

— Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

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