Tuesday, June 26, 2007

England’s would-be Sony

When I started doing academic research into the IT industry in 1994, I focused my attention on Japan. The Japanese (with Fujitsu) had caught up technologically to IBM in mainframes, made many of the key PC components, and seemed like they would control the US laptop market any day now. A look at my CV will show that almost anything I published from 1995-2000 had something to do with the Japanese IT industry. But there really wasn’t much IT industry to study in Europe: ICL and CIE Machines Bull were long since failures, and nobody outside Europe bought European PCs. (OK, overstated, but only slightly).

In 1996, my advisor (John Leslie King) and a professor in Finland (Kalle Lyytinen) attempted to interest me in GSM mobile phones. We got some good data visiting companies like Nokia and Ericsson, and I started gathering data in the US and Japan. Although the Finns turned out several PhD and masters’ theses, us Americans at UCI never had enough money or warm bodies to uphold our end of the bargain. (Still, I have published byproducts of that work and other pieces will end up in my next book). Of course, since that time, I’ve followed the rise of Nokia, collapse of Motorola and Ericsson, the entry of the Koreans, and the various joint ventures and other exit strategies used by firms to escape brutal competition in a maturing industry.

In the past year or so, however, my attention has turned to Britain (or, more precisely, England). It’s hard to study mobile phone platforms without noticing the dominance of Advanced RISC Machines Limited, the 1990 joint venture of Apple, Acorn and VLSI Technology. More specifically, what’s unavoidable is that 80+% of mobile phones are using microprocessors built around a license to the ARM instruction set and CPU architecture.

The other example is Symbian, which is a company that I’ve been tracking since 2002, but for the past six months have worked directly with to help them refine their innovation strategies. In addition to learning about Symbian OS, related technologies like S60 and UIQ, and their uniquely complex ecosystem, this effort has also broadened my perspective beyond California and East Asia.

Take one example. In my first visit to Symbian last December, I stood up and said something like “Apple invented the PDA” and almost got wrestled to the ground by an angry Symbian (former Psion) engineer. I still think my original statement was correct, in that Apple invented the term and it referred to pen-based devices of which the Newton and Palm OS are exemplars. There’s no denying, however, that Psion’s keyboard-based organizer and the Sharp Zaurus served much the same role in Europe and Japan, respectively.

History has not been kind to John Sculley’s “vision.” The Netwon is dead, while the Palm lives on as a Treo with a BlackBerry keyboard and a stylus nobody uses. The pen-based version of Symbian OS (UIQ) is far less popular than the cursor key variant (S60). Microsoft keeps making attempts to slap a pen on its Windows OS — with Pen Windows (“Windows for Pen Computing”), Windows CE (aka PocketPC aka Windows Mobile) and Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, but the hordes are still using the regular desktop OS. Overall, it’s not as though pen computing has changed the world the way we might have thought 15 or even 10 years ago.

Meanwhile, the Psion legacy lives on. On Tuesday morning, Andrew Orlowski of The Register posted a really long (40 printed pages) retrospective on the anniversary of the company’s last major product:

The Series 5 pocket computer from Psion was launched 10 years ago this week. It was a remarkable achievement: entirely new silicon, a new operating system, middleware stack and applications were developed from scratch in just over two years.

This was the last time anyone undertook such a daunting task: it may be the last time anyone ever tries, either. Companies or projects that are formed to achieve simply one of these four goals typically end in failure: to achieve all four successfully, and put them in a product that was successful, too, was a triumph of creativity and management.
As we discovered, however, this story is about much more than the life of a product. It's about the fate of a once-inventive and fearless computer company. Twice, Psion launched products into the teeth of a recession, products that defied accepted technical limitations and market wisdom to become success stories.

But just as it had with PDAs, the Psion Group also made plans to develop GPS navigation systems, hard-disk based music players, digital radios, and even set-top boxes - long before these markets existed.

So Psion had the chance to become something few imagine was ever possible: a home-grown consumer electronics giant with a global brand: a British Sony, or a British General Electrics.
What happened? As Orikowski recounts:
  • After Psion and the three largest mobile phone companies founded Symbian as a 1998 joint venture, Symbian eventually sucked up the majority of Psion’s software staff.
  • What was left of Psion merged with Teklogix in 2000 and now selling industrial instruments and similar products.
  • Mark Gretton jumped from Psion to become CTO of TomTom in 2003. Leveraging a core of Psion alumni, TomTom now sells $2 billion a year in satellite navigation products.
  • David Tupman is now Director of iPod hardware engineering at Apple.
  • Psion founder David Potter is now a CBE, and lamenting the conflict between high-tech R&D and British government and capital market policies.
The article is long, and has vaguely implausible elements of British nationalism (we invented everything but dropped the ball). Still, Orlowski makes a convincing case that Psion is undeservedly obscure, particularly in North America.

Overall, the article is 17,000 words — 9,000 of that edited Q&A with five of the principals. I can’t do the article justice in a 1,000 word blog entry, so (if time permits) I’ll come back to a few points later.

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