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RTOS mainstay in high-end feature phones

Posted: 17 Mar 2003 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:pda? operating system? smart phones? rtos? manitoba?

OS-centric phones and PDAs will soon dominate the market, although timing, features and competitive pricing will be significant considerations, shares Electronic Engineering Times - Asia's Majeed Ahmad.

Majeed Ahmad is Managing Editor of Electronic Engineering Times - Asia.
In 2001, when Jeff Hawkins, the man who brought Palm and Treo handhelds to the world, said, "the traditional handset doesn't have much of an OS on it, so I don't think there is an opportunity to be the Microsoft of the cellphones," no one paid much attention. The technology trade media was mesmerized by the prospects of a Microsoft-Nokia standoff for the riches of OS software that would serve as the engine of smart phones.

But is the OS the be-all, end-all of smart phones? Not all agree, including wireless bellwether Ericsson and top chipmaker Intel. Ericsson's handset reference design, for instance, is geared for basic-to-high feature-mode phones using its homegrown real-time operating system (RTOS) kernel. The Swedish cellular firm is aiming to let handset vendors add features and applications incrementally and safely without necessarily adopting a full-blown OS.

In February, when Intel announced its long-awaited wireless-on-a-single-chip solution - Manitoba - it was targeted for running on an RTOS.

The advanced handsets are, in effect, pocket computers--but they have emerged from the consumer-electronics industry rather than the world of computing. As the cellphone industry starts to move into consumer territory, where price is a sensitive issue, full-featured operating systems like Symbian carry additional costs due to associated royalties.

Then there is a memory penalty as OS-based handsets use a lot of memory, which costs money and space on an increasingly smaller footprint.

Unless Symbian and Microsoft come up with more affordable licensing models for midrange mobile phone vendors, it appears the volume handset market will continue to be fragmented among independent RTOSes and related silicon platforms.

Beyond RTOS, the mini-browser may capture the vast majority of wireless data applications as the front-end. And what doesn't fit into the browser - where you need richer environment to store something or stream media - that's where Java will play.

There is a little doubt that OS-centric phones will eventually come of age, although timing will be critical. Features such as color screens, built-in digital cameras and music players might encourage consumers to start using advanced data services. As more and more applications are added to handsets, it will become a logical extension to bundle such applications with an OS.

How well wireless operators do in developing new services and promoting them to consumers at reasonable prices will also be vital. If they succeed here, that will bode well with the future of smart phones.

- Majeed Ahmad

Electronic Engineering Times - Asia

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