opinion


Time for change

Time for change

Time for change

Time for change

In 2008, two relative newcomers finally made their mark in the handset space, jointly setting the scene for a major shift in the direction of the mobile operating system market in 2009.

Towards the end of last year, web giant Google’s foray into the mobile market looked like it was picking up significant steam, with 2009 likely to be the year when Android comes into its own.

Already the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) has a member base more than 40 strong, and Android-based devices are expected to come out from all the main handset vendors – with the notable exception of Nokia-over the next 12 months.

Ever since the Symbian Foundation was formed in the wake of Nokia’s complete acquisition of the company last summer, the number of players developing software platforms have been thinning out. In early January this year the death knell sounded for UIQ Technology, the software company jointly owned by Motorola and Sony Ericsson. The UIQ platform, which really only ever featured in handsets from the two owners, has been absorbed into Symbian.

Perhaps in a show of foresight, the Symbian Foundation proposed to introduce an open source licence model for Symbian and the S60, UIQ and NTT DoCoMo’s MOAP platforms, and has itself won considerable support in the industry.

Meanwhile, in the background, the fragmented Linux market underwent some consolidation, as the Linux Phone Standards (LiPS) Forum folded its activities and membership into the LiMo Foundation, pooling efforts and resources to help unify Linux-based mobile platforms and accelerate the emergence of common mobile Linux specifications.

Unfortunately, these organisations lack the presence of Google, which with only one device yet available, is seeing Android build up considerable momentum. Drawing heavily on the open source ethos as well as Linux-based building blocks, Google and the OHA have effectively reduced the cost of software to close to zero, making it an attractive proposition for handset builders in these straitened times.

The G1 with Android, manufactured by Taiwanese vendor HTC and available via T-Mobile in the US and UK, shifted an estimated 1 million units by the end of 2008, up from earlier projections of 600,000. And the portfolio of Android-based handsets looks set to swell its ranks over the coming year, with devices confirmed by HTC, Kogan, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, Kyocera, Asus, Garmin, Huawei, LG, Samsung and Toshiba.

Google’s ambitions are clear. With mobile broadband adoption exploding-Informa Telecoms & Media reports that at the end of June there were 14 million HSPA subscribers in Europe, growing by 3 million every quarter-and big screen handsets becoming popular, Google has tweaked its mobile advertising options to better support the newest breed of mobile operating systems.

But the real pressure is being applied by Apple, which has experienced unforeseen success with the iPhone and has raised the bar from a technical perspective. Although the company is a long way off infringing on the market share of the handset market’s leading lights, it’s already putting the boot into smaller vendors like Palm. During the second half of 2008, industry analyst Canalys reported that the introduction of the iPhone 3G and Apple’s expansion into more countries helped propel the vendor to second place in the smartphone market, taking it above RIM for the first time.

By way of response, rivals have been forced to mimic Apple’s touch screen userĀ  interface, high performance and easy to use development tools, and in early January, Palm came out swinging. Jumping on the cloud computing bandwagon, Palm webOS allows consumers to pull their contacts, calendars and personal information down from the internet, wirelessly.

A key feature of the Palm platform is synchronisation of information between multiple services, so if the same contact is listed in the user’s phonebook and on their social networking sites, both contact details are pulled into the same interface. Likewise with multiple conversation platforms such as text message and email.

The first device to support the webOS platform is the Pre, which will be available exclusively from Sprint in the first half of 2009. Palm’s idea, it seems, is to tap into the vast developer ecosystem already being pillaged by web companies and handset vendors who were more ahead of the game.

In the last couple of weeks Apple has boasted of the availability of more than 15,000 applications in the App Store with more than 500 million downloads under its belt. The vendor recently relaxed restrictions on the App Store approval process, allowing third party web browsers into the marketplace, marking an about face on previous guidelines which banned third party apps from replicating the functionality of the native iPhone installation. The company also tweaked its iTunes marketplace to allow iPhone users to download music on the fly. Until now, users had only been able to make purchases and downloads over wifi or by syncing with a PC. The move will give Apple a stronger position in the mobile music market as it goes up against rival offerings from the operator community as well as other handset vendors, with app store announcements being all the rage at Mobile World Congress.

Nokia jumped on the app store bandwagon, announcing plans to open its own marketplace in May. Billed as an extension of its mobile services platform, the Ovi Store will allow content providers and developers to upload their own applications and sell their wares to Nokia using consumers and enterprises. The Ovi Store will consolidate the vendor’s current content services, including Download!, MOSH and WidSets to a single channel. Available content will range from applications, games and videos to widgets, podcasts, location-based applications and personalisation content for Nokia Series 40 and S60 devices.

Meanwhile, software giant Microsoft was banging the app store drum at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, confirming plans to launch a mobile content marketplace of its own. Details of the app shop were thin on the ground however, with the Redmond Giant only revealing that the marketplace is due to launch in the fourth quarter of this year, with a showcase of around 20,000 apps, of which two thirds will be targeted at consumers. And Version 6.5 of the Windows mobile platform will see the company push even further into the consumer space with a flashier user interface and easier access to information by reducing the configuration and number of clicks required.

Playing catch up to some degree, Finnish handset vendor Nokia recently launched its first full fledged touch screen gadget, the 5800 ‘Tube’ handset at the end of January. The Tube is the first device to be based on Symbian S60 5th Edition, which finally includes support for touch input and tactile feedback, while enhanced display resolution with a widescreen mode make a more engaging visual experience.

It’s still only February and already this year looks like its going to see heated exchanges between the leading handset vendor and the new pretenders Google and Apple as well as a potential comeback from Palm, with web-based functionality and touchscreens becoming the most important weapons of all.

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