RealTime IT News

Software Becomes the Smartphone Battlefield

Describing the smartphone market as "busy" these days just doesn't do it justice.

Tomorrow, Nokia is set to debut it latest high-end smartphone, which comes right on the heels of T-Mobile's launch of the highly anticipated Android-based HTC G1 handset.

Nokia's (NYSE: NOK) also been busy introducing new Web- and multimedia-friendly phones, while enterprise mobility leader Research in Motion (RIM) has been pushing hard into the consumer space. RIM (NASDAQ: RIMM) just launched its first flip Pearl handset and is readying its newest BlackBerry, the Storm. It's also promising new mobile device platforms in early 2009, while Palm is doing the same.

Oh, and let's not forget the arrival of Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPhone 3G two months ago, which, despite launch glitches, further cemented the Mac and iPod maker as a force to be reckoned with in the phone space.

With such frenzied competition, how do handset makers expect to break free from their rivals? The answer is in the platform, which sets the stage for advanced functions such as PC-like multimedia support and third-party application development -- features that industry observers see as critical to success.

"Software is changing the soul of the smartphone and making devices much more special," Carolina Milanesi, research director for mobile devices technology at Gartner, told InternetNews.com.

And with platforms becoming the key to next-generation applications, there is a continuing debate over whether open source or proprietary systems will ultimately provide the most fertile environment.

While the G1 is the first device launched using the new open source Android platform spearheaded by the Google-backed Open Handset Alliance (OHA), Milanesi expects Android devices from several vendors in the near future. There were rumors this week that Motorola, a founding OHA supporter, is shoring up its in-house development efforts for future Android development. Motorola (NYSE: MOT) did not respond to mobile platform strategy inquiries by press time.

"While none of the vendors have made statements, I think more devices have to come out to give Android strength," Milanesi said.

Simultaneously, longtime proprietary platform vendors such as Palm and even Nokia are now reconsidering their operating system strategies in the quest to push out new, appealing applications and services.

For some, like Palm and Motorola, such tinkering is key to remaining in the market. The past few years have been tough going for both, as each has struggled to retain its standing amid market woes and increasing competition.

Motorola long enjoyed the No. 2 slot following the big success of its RAZR phone in 2004, but has yet to serve up a device anywhere near as popular since then.

Palm (NASDAQ: PALM), revered for both the Treo and Centro smartphone devices, noted in its September earnings report that the maturing of the Centro handset presents a challenge, and "profits will be elusive" going forward into the next quarter.

These days, Palm relies on two mobile operating systems, including the Palm OS, which it licenses from ACCESS for its consumer-based devices. It uses Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) Windows Mobile for its enterprise smartphone line.

"Palm's play in the enterprise is with Microsoft, and together we deliver a solution that doesn't require proprietary middleware, while adding our hallmark Palm experience," Pam Deziel, vice president of software product marketing at Palm, told InternetNews.com.

Palm's latest enterprise offerings -- the Treo 800w and the month-old Pro -- run on Windows Mobile 6.1. The platform, Deziel said, is compatible with Microsoft's System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008 (SCMDM), which offers needed security for business environments.

"With SCMDM, IT managers can enforce enterprise security policies on mobile devices with the same tools that they are familiar with on the company desktops," Deziel said.

Such security requirements are behind much of the success for RIM's BlackBerry OS, which fuels all the vendor's smartphones. RIM did not respond to inquiries about its mobile platform strategy by press time, but it's long been praised for its close tie-in to enterprise systems and policies -- most importantly, its enabling of IT administrative oversight of mobile devices.

Security provisions represent a main reason why enterprises flock to certain handsets over others, according to experts. Yet while open source mobile platforms can drive faster development, given wider involvement among developers, and less-restricted developer access in general, they are also often viewed as less secure -- for the same reasons.

Page 2: Open source fights back