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TapRoot: Enabling the WiFi Revolution On Symbian OS Print E-mail
Written by Richard Bloor   
Sunday, 14 August 2005
Taproot has transformed itself from a services company, working mainly for handset vendors, to one supplying off the self software components for Symbian OS smartphones. As Taproot works with fundamental smartphone components they are a bell weather for the Symbian OS.

In April 2004 Taproot took $7m in venture capital. Up to that time it had been providing contract services for about 4 years, undertaking telephony design, for a range of handset manufacturers. The goal in taking venture capital was to allow Taproot to invest in a range of products. One of the results was the launch of a WiFi product for Symbian OS in October 2004, which was successfully licensed to Symbian in June 2005 for inclusion in future versions of Symbian OS. This was followed by other telephony products. The change now sees over 75% of Taproot's revenue coming from product licensing and royalties.

"Licensing our WiFi product to Symbian was an important milestone for us," says Hugh Thomas, CEO of Taproot. "It provides a real endorsement that our technology is the de-facto standard for the future. From a commercial perspective it positions us well to deal with the handset manufactures, as they will know that they are protected for the future if they buy from us today."

The change has also has an impact on the structure and organisation of the company. The most significant that Taproot now has a support organisation and as a result has grown its staff from 25 to over 50 people in the last year.

"We made the decision to go down this path because we could see that Symbian was on the right track," says Hugh. "Eighteen months ago, when we put the business plan together, there were still some question over the ownership of Symbian and whether the market share was going eventuate. But we made the bet that Symbian was going to be successful and we wanted to be part of that success. Now I think that is a forgone conclusion that Symbian will be successful. They are growing their customer base and the device volumes are getting into the very significant numbers."

Taproots WiFi product is a WLAN sub system which plugs into Symbian OS. It is principally designed for hand set manufacturers but Taproot also sells it to chip set manufacturers.

"Symbian's history and pedigree has always been around the mobile phone," says Hugh. "Other operating systems have migrated from a desk top world where there has been LAN connectivity for sometime. Creating WLAN technology for Symbian OS meant we had to create a number of new components, in the areas of network discovery and security. All in all we invested over 50 man years of programming in the development. When it is added to Symbian OS it accounts for almost 10% of the total firmware footprint."

So has anyone, apart for Symbian, shown an interest in the product. Hugh was somewhat cagey about this, "By the end of the year we expect a couple more vendors to be using this technology that we will be able to discuss publicly. From what we are seeing this year 1 in 10 new smart phones designs will have WiFi, I think by next year it will be more like 1 in 5. Based on the designs that we see now, and the customer interest, this is a market that is taking off very, very quickly."

So why does Hugh think there is such an interest in WiFi, given that traditionally it has been seen as a threat to operators? "Adding WiFi to a phone opens up different application domains to the smart phone user," says Hugh. "The change is similar to moving from dial up to broadband on your home or enterprise PC. When you have a 5-10 megabit pipe coming into a smartphone that has a 200 to 300 megahertz processor there are many new applications you can run. We think that this is going to enable a lot of new technologies foremost of which, ironically, will be voice. Voice over IP is becoming popular from a PC perspective and we believe that that is going to be a leading and driving technology for WiFi on smartphones." Unsurprisingly Taproot have a set of products to address VoIP, CommP™ Talker. This product runs over both cellular and WiFi networks; by the end of the year, Hugh claims, it will include hand off between cellular and WiFi.

"We believe that WiFi is not just another Bluetooth or infrared port," say Hugh. "It is foundational to what people will be doing with smartphones in the future. While Voice over IP is sometimes seen as a threat to operators' revenue streams it is also a big opportunity. It allows them to address new and emerging markets, in different sectors of the industry. Beyond VoIP, we see streaming media and interactive gaming as the other areas to benefit from WiFi."

Finding experienced staff still remains Taproot's biggest challenge and the single largest constraint on growth. Even so Taproot is now the largest independent Symbian OS software development organisation in North America. To achieve this it has pulled in people from all over the world including Europe, Asia, and North America. As well as employing experienced staff Taproot has also hired graduate students, which they have trained themselves. "I think, from a global perspective, skilled staff is one of biggest challenges for the Symbian ecosystem," says Hugh. "Not just for us but Symbian, all the handset manufactures and ISVs, it is still a challenge."

Is this problem exacerbated by a US location we wondered, given that Symbian OS is not perceived to have significant penetration in the US. "Not really, in fact it gives us an opportunity as well," says Hugh. "Most of our historic business has been US based, although that is changing. Wireless LAN is largely a US developed technology, a lot of the US based semi-connector vendors produce WiFi as well as telephony components. So there are advantages in being able to flight directly to Dallas to see Texas Instruments or Boston to see Intel." However Hugh also points to the fact that this is a global industry, noting Symbian's recent start-up in India. "Over the next few years lower cost regions of the world are clearly going to offer certain efficiencies in developing code and that is just a fact of life that we have to deal with. Right now we have a smart bunch of people here who are focused and know what they are doing in a relativity niche area. I believe there is strong role for a company like ours; creating leading edge technology and adding value to the larger community."

So what does the growth at Taproot tell us about the overall Symbian device ecosystem? "We really only see a sub-section of the market," says Hugh. "We currently make our living out of 5 to 10 customers, but this is twice as many customers as we had last year. Perhaps the most significant sign we see is that our semi-conductor partners, who see a broader section cross section of the customer base, have clearly recognised the value of the smartphone market and the features and capabilities that are pulled together by Symbian OS. Really you just have to look at the numbers to see Symbian is making its play."

Taproot now has offices in London co-located with Symbian with plans for an Asian office in near future. Hugh expects staff number to double again in the next year to around 100 personnel.

More information on Taproot Systems can be fond at its website: www.taprootsystems.com



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