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UIQ an Interview with Johan Sandberg

by Richard Bloor, September 3, 2003

The P800 has been a great success for Sony Ericsson, a success that owes a lot to the phones user interface, UIQ. Motorola have now formally announced the A920 and BenQ have a UIQ phone due for release later this year so it is perhaps timely that Richard recently had the opportunity to talk with UIQs CEO Johan Sandberg.



UIQ started life in 1998 as Ericssonís Mobile Communications Applications Lab and was acquired by Symbian in January 1999. Based in Ronneby, a small town in southern Sweden, on the Soft Center science park associated with the Blekinge Technical University, UIQ have been quietly building what was perhaps the most anticipated Symbian OS UI. Ronneby and UIQ has been spared the worst effects of the downturn in the wireless sector, something CEO Johan Sandberg attributes in part to their out of town location but also to the strength of their team and the UIQ technology. Johan is justly proud of the fact that he is one of the few telecoms CEO's presiding over an expanding company. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Johan and find out a bit more about where UIQ is going.

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WDN: Most analysts expect that the largest volume of smartphones shipped for the foreseeable future will be based on Series 60. Does this mean that UIQ is a niche UI or do you see UIQ competing with Series 60 in the volume market?
Johan: We are often asked whether we are worried by Series 60, do we see them as a competitor? Clearly we see them as a competitor, often when we are pitching to potential licensees we are competing face to face with Series 60, and in some cases they take the client and in others we do. But overall we are pleased by the success of Series 60 because we are all part of the Symbian ecosystem and in many ways their success helps build our success and visa versa.

Clearly Series 60 is going to be the main player in this market for many years to come but the smartphone market is growing rapidly. The growth is explosive particularly when compared to the PDA, or even the PC market, and it is going to result in a big market, indeed it is already quite big. So handset manufactures, our licensees, are looking for ways to differentiate their products to address different market segments. From that point of view UIQ is a niche product and we are realistic that we will probably always be outsold by Series 60, but we are dealing with pretty significantly sized niches. I think that you will see that UIQs strength is that we fulfil the requirements for several niches, if you look at the three products from our announced licensees, Sony Ericsson, Motorola and BENQ, you will see three radically different product. We have other licensees who have not yet made public announcements, some of whom are creating several phones to address different market segments or niches if you like, all based on UIQ. So I believe we will be playing in several niches and we expect these niches to actually be quite significant in volume terms.

WDN: You announced an update of UIQ, version 2.1 back in April, pretty soon after the Sony Ericsson P800 became available, given that 2.0 had only just come to market what were the goals you were trying to meet with 2.1?
Johan: We had two main goals in creating UIQ 2.1. The first was to provide our licensees with a path to update their devices, to make sure UIQ remains new and fresh while obviously keeping binary compatibility. We are very focused on compatibility so our licensees can upgrade on existing hardware and reuse any applications they have added to the interface. The other big reason was to attract new licensees by incorporating a telephony application. Given that Symbian OS is designed for mobile phones it may sound strange that it did not include a telephony application, but it now does in UIQ. It has been very well received by the licensees as for some of them the task of creating there own telephony application would have been a huge project and could have acted as a barrier to developing smartphone products. So we now have telephony in UIQ and as a result have been able to speed up the time to market for our licenseeís phones considerably.

WDN: So the demand for a telephony application came from your smaller licensees?
Johan: Itís actually been a broad requirement from all our licensees with the exception of Sony Ericsson and Motorola who created their own telephony applications. And its not just small companies which see it as an advantage, after all Series 60 also deliverers a telephony application, so its almost a sanitation exercise, something you need to have to compete in the market. We have been fortunate in the past to be able to license UIQ without it but its essential to growing our licensee base.

WDN: Did you develop the telephony application within UIQ?
Johan: No itís a sub-licensed component and there will be an announcement about the license agreement in the next few weeks.

In UIQ 2.1 we also added some features from requirements provided by our customer like Java MIDP 2.0, syncML 1.2 and others. The other changes are our own innovations such as the addition of interface themes that allow the users to personalize their phones efficiently.

WDN: UIQ still comes in two styles the quarter VGA communicator and the narrower smartphone size found on the Sony Ericsson P800. As the industry focus is on phone sized devices rather than the PDA form factor do you see anyone using the UIQ communicator screen format?
Johan: In fact when we look at the market our customers are actually saying quarter VGA and its been a while since anyone has asked for anything else, so having the quarter VGA format from the start has worked to our advantage. However you wonít be seeing PDA sized device because we are talking about a far smaller screen. If you look at the market trends, and particularly what DoCoMo is doing in Japan, you will see 2.2" (5.6cm) and 2.4Ē (6.1cm) quarter VGA screen are becoming the norm. On the phones I have seen the readability and color is just amazing. Because of DoCoMoís requirements the bill of material for these screens is coming down and as a result the industry is following.
So I fully expect to see quarter VGA as the standard for UIQ phones in the not too distant future.

WDN: Does this mean you are working with DoCoMo?
Johan: No we are not. However, through Symbianís Operator Marketing Team we are in constant discussions with all the major operators.

WDN: One of the keys to the smartphone market is seen as the availability of third-party applications, from your perspective how well has UIQ been performing there?
Johan: We only have one UIQ based phone on sale at the moment, the P800 and it has only been widely available since about March, but if you look at Handango I think you will find that the top 10 commercial Symbian OS applications are all for UIQ. In many respects the uptake of UIQ as a developer platform has exceeded our expectations. We certainly see third-party applications as a success factor for UIQ and we are very much focused on making UIQ a great platform for ISVs and enterprise developers. Our feedback from licensees also tells us that in choosing UIQ its suitability for third-party developers was a strong part of the equation.

WDN: Do you think the success is because UIQ is a good platform for rich applications or because of the type of customer UIQ appeals to?
Johan: I hope itís both of those reasons. I think that the P800 holds a lot of appeal to the astute early adopter who is more likely to download games and other applications, but the P800 also has a strong appeal to business people. I don't know how well it has been taken up throughout Europe but if you travel on the train into Waterloo or the Heathrow Express or attend any business meeting in Sweden it is clear that P800 appeals to business consumers. And the business user is a very attractive customer to the developer and many of the top selling UIQ applications have a definite business focus.

WDN: However much has been made of the apparently fractured nature of the Symbian OS, multiple UIs, multiple SDKs, do you see this as a barrier for developers?
Johan: Symbian OS is supporting several UI platforms, with each one focus on different form factors and having different interaction goals, so a single SDK would be very complex and certainly mean compromises that I donít believe ISVs would find acceptable. So I donít believe we can usefully eliminate the multiple SDKs, but what we can do and are actively working on is ensuring that developers find the process of working with multiple UIs and SDKs simple and straightforward. So for example we are working on a common certification program, we are working with tool vendors that can offer tools to port applications and actively looking to add tool vendors. AppForge is a great example of what we are trying to do, it was a really positive move for UIQ as it allowed VB and Palm developers to bring a huge range of applications to UIQ. We know that not everyone wants to use CodeWarrior, good though it is. We are also supporting developers by ensuring they have the best information on working with all the Symbian OS UIs through our whitepapers and there is a lot of co-operative effort going on in this area.

WDN: Working with multiple UIs is more than a simple technical issue, it would seem to me that there is also a lot of effort the developers need to put into thinking about how to implement their applications for the different UI paradigms and the customers they will appeal to?
Johan: Absolutely I agree one hundred percent that thinking through how the application will work effectively in another UI is a significant challenge to the developer, but we still recognize the need to make sure that the technical part does not stop them.

WDN: So looking forward what do you see as UIQs main challenges as we head towards 2004?
Johan: There are probably two. The first is to ensure that we deliver on our promises to our licensees in terms of the enhancements we are making to UIQ to ensure that they can build attractive phones and get them to market at the right time. The second is an internal one of learning to live with multiple version support. We now have 3 versions of UIQ, the two publicly announced versions and the next one we are working on, all derived from the same code base. We also have multiple licensees working on multiple versions of UIQ. Its an interesting learning experience and one which I think we are doing a good job at addressing, its quite a challenge, but a natural part of growing up as a product organization.

WDN: Finally Johan, is UIQ a single interface company or do you have plans for other UIs?
Johan: UIQ is extremely flexible, the architecture allows more customization and differentiation than I think many people realize. When I look at the devices being built by our licensees I think that everyone will be surprised how diverse UIQ based products will be. Essentially our licensees are able to build almost any kind of phone with UIQ. The big trick is that we have figured out how to provide flexibility while keeping the underlying UI APIs unchanged, and we have dedicated a lot of thought and resource to working out how to do it. So the conclusion that we have come to is that we don't need to build another interface because UIQ will allow huge flexibility. So we are not planning another UI rather we will continue to evolve UIQ to allow our customers to build the widest range of phones possible. But, while we are confident of this strategy, things change in this industry. Its going to be interesting I think.




About the WDN Symbian Editor, Richard Bloor:
Richard Bloor is a freelance writer and editor with 18 years experience in the IT industry as a developer, analyst and latterly Project Manager with a particularly focus on software testing. Richard has been involved with the Symbian OS since 1995 and has been writing about it for the last 3 years.

Richard is also an associate with System Architecture consultancy Equinox of Wellington, New Zealand.

Richard can be reached at symbian@wirelessdevnet.com.

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