Taking a short break from the Expo, I went for a walk in the open air, only to hear the sound of a passenger jet taking off from London City Airport. Right over the ExCeL Conference Centre and the largest gathering of Symbian OS companies and people. "If the engines give out now," I thought, "then Symbian OS is going to be wiped out as 100 tonnes of metal plunge through the roof onto the conference floor. The entire community infrastructure of managment, satellite companies and developers would go up in smoke." Which everyone inside thought was rather macabre, but it does illustrate one point.
If you had anything to do with Symbian, you were in that hall. The networking opportunities were countless. I suspect more business deals were started in these two days that all of the rest of 2004 put together. And no matter what else we (or anyone else) write about the Expo, the sheer number of meetings made it worthwhile
Does It Feel Good?
Compared to the 2003 Expo, this year was much bigger. There were more stands (close to 100), and around 4,000 people through the doors over the two days. There was a definite buzz in the air, and the ExCeL venue was a good choice.
Straight in the doors you had the smooth curves of the Symbian stand on the right, with pavillions from UIQ and Sony Ericcson on the left. The second tier of show-offs had Mobile Innovation with their new Grammar checker for Source Code to promote. Yes I know it's really clever, and a first for the coding scene, and it's an amazing thing to see the errors in all the Rom apps, but it's just a grammar checker.
Beyond that we had the Deli, with a constant supply of coffee and cakes. Which was very popular on Wednesday morning for some reason. Maybe it was because everyone needed a jump start of caffinne. Or maybe it's becase the scary Symbian coders were encouraged to come along then (away from the journalists) and they need coffee every 30 minutes or they start spouting random REM statements? I mean, what other breed of man would rejoyce in a Salvador Dalek sweater?
Software: The Money Pit
For two days though, you could wander round the stands and speak to the developers and marketing people from the software companies looking to have the next big thing (or in the case of Mobimate, have last years best thing which is still this years big thing by virtue of having no challengers). One conversation I kept on having from the people on the stands went something like this...
"You've got a very nice product, it's been programmed really well and it's almost practical for the end user."
"What's your business plan? How do you make money?"
"We're going to sell it to the networks."
"Have you got a deal yet?"
"No. But how can they ignore this, it's wonderful?"
Time and time again this seemed to be the full business plan. Now obviously that's not everyone, because a fair number of the software companes are established enough to reach end-users in significant numbers (Psi-Loc and Epocware for example). Other companies are going the more traditional route of first round funding from VC's and Government Grants. I Wan 2 Go is a perfect example of this. It's a small company with big ideas, but at least they're aware that you need to work to keep your bottom line in the black.
But there is no sign of a killer app on the horizon. It's worrying to think that the biggest stars of the show in terms of software was a few things on the horizon from Epocware and Psiloc. Beyond that you could choose from ten mapping solutions, twenty applications that download the weather where you are, forty applications that alter the UI layer for corporate branding, and fifty applications that pull down information from the internet and present it in a fancy graphical form instead of readable plain text.
And a sneak preview of the new version of Opera. Which presents text as text. That's genuinely useful.
But most of the software companies on show weren't trying to sell to the end user, they were attempting to go straight to the networks and get a single massive payment to cover all the costs involved. That feels particularly risky to me, and there's going to be a lot of talented people disappointed.
The dual apporach is always best. Make sure your application is available for the end-user and build up a following (also gaining valuable in the field testing as well). Mazin and Zeyad Ramadan, from Picostation, are going down that route with what has to be the slickest blogging tool for Series 60 I've seen in a long time. Tucked away at the back of the hall on a single table, they've been happily moblogging the event, demoing their advanced post editor, and the video blogging server they've also put together. Out of all the carrier chasers, I think they're going to be the winners.
Hardware: On a Highway to Heaven and Hell
Of course this wasn't just a Software Developers Conference, and it was really the hardware guys (and Symbian themselves) that you were looking to for the real story and the strong message that they wanted to present to the world.
I'm still trying to figure out if there was a strong message, other than "Forward, chaps!" Everyone's got a slightly better phone (eg the Motorola A1000), a slightly better OS (Symbian OS 8.0), a slightly better UI (UIQ 3.0), a slightly faster chip (TI), a new supplier (Intel's X-Scale for Nokia's 3G reference platfom), a slightly better toolchain and IDE... the list goes on. What I didn't see was any clear idea or vision of where Symbian OS was going apart from blindly forward.
The keynotes were jumbled at best, and unrehearsed at worst. When Symbian proclaim the future is safe in the hands of their partners, and then Sony Ericcson show off a non-Symbian phone as their key product for 2005, you have to wonder if they ran through the Powerpoint slides together before going out in front of an audience.
Where was Nokia? Not in the keynotes for one thing. The two stands they did have were mainly focussed on Forum Nokia for one, and the Series 60 partners (Siemens, Samsung, Sendo and Panasonic) on the other. When your majority shareholder isn't highly visible, questions could well be asked. And why did Vodafone's two page advert in the centre of the show guide focus on another non-Symbian OS device? Sure their Blackberry phone may be the future of email, but what's wrong with pushing something else Blackberry enabled like the 9300?
Remember the end of Highway To Heaven with Michael Landon walking up a deserted road, with an unclear future, but the idea that he must keep moving on? That's the message I took away from Symbian and their Partners. "Forward chaps, because something nice is just over the horizon."
It's Not All Negative
Irrespective of what I've written above, the Expo was a great place to be, and everyone seemed to leave in an excited frame of mind, ready to carry on for another year with more enthusiasm that they had before walking through the doors on Tuesday morning. There's a huge amount of intellect in the Symbian community, and the fact that Symbian as a company have managed to corral the industry's biggest companies into moving in the same direction, with enough standards to make it all worthwhile deserves to be acknowledged. the biggest strength of Symbian OS is the sheer number of companies in the partnership and beyond, that have all decided to join forces and do something together. That enthusiasm (even if it looks a little bit unfocused) is the key to the marketplace.
And of course All About Symbian noticed a difference this year. Whereas in 2003 we had to educate a lot of people about the site, what it was for, and what it could do for them, this year we have companies actively seeking us out to ask us if we can talk about them, do a review, where to send information, and generally wondering what they need to do to get their message out to the community.
Roll on Expo 2005, that's what I say - if it's even half as useful as this one for meeting people then it'll be another 'must attend' event.
The UIQ Mints.
Finally, before I forget, there was an almost complete lack of free stuff and tacky promotional items. Only one item springs to mind, and that's the mints on the UIQ stand (which we also gave away a box of at the Pub Meet Raffle). Put simply, Carlsberg don't make mints. But if they did, they wouldn't be as good as the UIQ mints. Who needs food and dring when you've a pocketful of these babies?
Rafe wants to point out that, more than most of Ewan's articles, this one really is being sarcastic and ironic a lot of the time. The Expo was really good, and helped everyone who attended it no end. Thankfully there wasn't a Symbian organised evening event for Ewan to review this year...
A futher report on the expo from Rafe is available here.