What Will Become the Next Scion of Psion?

What Will Become the Next Scion of Psion?

Guy Kewney

David Potter, founder and chairman of Psion, is not a financier. He’s a genuine geek. So when he pulls out of Symbian–and make no mistake, that’s what he’s done–it’s for technical reasons.

So what has Dr. Potter got in mind?

The obvious suspect (Windows) is almost too appalling to consider. Here we have a world in which there are precious few alternatives to Redmond. Natural justice demands that the rivals have to keep faith. Heck, never mind natural justice! What about the economic well-being of the IT industry?

Nonetheless, Potter has abandoned his own brainchild, the Symbian operating system. It grew out of the EPOC operating environment for the original Psion handhelds. So what could the alternative be?

To save you sweating too much, I’ll reveal all: Potter’s in love with Linux. But I’ll admit even I had a bad moment when I realized that by selling everything except his Canadian subsidiary, Psion Teklogix, he’d left himself in a situation where the only portable machine he had left was one that runs Windows CE. “Surely not!” I said.

Indeed, not, Potter assured me.

His problem with Symbian has nothing to do with a lack of faith in the technology. Rather, he says, it has more to do with the fact that Symbian is exclusively wireless.

The faith Potter has in Symbian is clear, but so is his frustration with it. The faith is amply illustrated, as he points out, by the deal he’s done in selling his shares to Nokia. Psion stands to make relatively little money out of it if Symbian doesn’t maintain its dominance of the phone market. If Symbian does well, Potter gets two branches of finance over the next two years, which could amply fund his other adventures in technology. Or, to put it more succinctly: he makes a bundle if Nokia sells a lot of Symbian installations.

There are going to be new Psion Teklogix announcements in this year–already revealed to shareholders–and from what I know of Potter, they are not going to be Windows announcements. His enthusiasm for Linux is not just a reflection of his admiration for Motorola’s Chinese adventures.

“We are not going to get involved in handset cell phones,” says Potter firmly. But it’s clear that this doesn’t mean he lost faith with Symbian. Quite the opposite. Potter wanted to take it into other sectors. But he couldn’t; Nokia has control over it, not Psion.

“One of the things that occurred in Symbian, with the shareholders, is that it was agreed we would focus very much on the wireless sector, in particular smart phones,” Potter remarks. “Hopefully, that would have involved taking that much more widely, but it turned out it was very much into smart phones.”

Therefore, he says somewhat sadly, “there’s an emphasis throughout Symbian, into the technology for wireless handsets, rather than more generally. Symbian could have got into other opportunities.”

Such as?

“Well, providing middleware and gluing software in motor cars of the future,” Potter points out. “More of them have more and more stuff they have to handle. They need middleware to bring it all together, want plugins, and a common standard. The need is clear.”

But that’s not going to happen. What Psion Teklogix is doing is moving into the “PC Lite” business. It has a product that looks just like a notebook PC, but instead of running Windows, it runs Windows CE. Similarly, there’s the Dana. The same idea but it uses the Palm OS as the engine for an everyday machine.

Potter agrees that the desktop machine is simply too powerful for most users’ needs.

“I agree fully with what you say about the desktop, Guy,” admits Potter. “That’s where Linux is so important. With the latest hardware, you’re putting great big tractors on people’s desks. They become very complex and fragile. I think Linux is the way that’s going to be taken forward, with a whole variety of products and offerings.”

Does this mean he won’t get involved in wireless? He says he can’t say–at least not until March 2nd when Psion publishes its year-end figures.

My bet is that Potter sees wireless with a far wider perspective than simple cellular phone networks can encompass. So we’ll see things that quite plausibly will have voice-over-Internet capabilities and wireless LAN technology built in but look like laptops or even small desktops. Of course, we’ll have to wait, to find out.

Check out eWEEK.com’s Mobile & Wireless Center at http://wireless.eweek.com for the latest news, views and analysis.

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in eWEEK.