3GSM 2004: Whither the Battle of Smart Phones?

Quite a few dogs failed to bark at 3GSM in Cannes this week, and some of those that did emitted a strange yelp rather than the throatier vulpine sound we'd been expecting. Several veteran journalists remarked on how refreshing it is not to be writing abou

Quite a few dogs failed to bark at 3GSM in Cannes this week, and some of those that did emitted a strange yelp rather than the throatier vulpine sound wed been expecting. Several veteran journalists remarked on how refreshing it is not to be writing about Microsoft all the time, but hearing so little of note from such a momentum-addicted company is positively spooky.

Your reporter spent quite some time trying to beat a rousing rallying cry out of Ed Suwanjindar, lead product manager for Microsofts Mobile Devices Division, but he wouldnt play, and although Microsofts site has carried the press release of the Sierra Wireless Vox, which is actually a pretty neat Windows Mobile 2003 product with a mini foldout keyboard, thats light years away from the megastar treatment Microsoft gave the Orange SPV when it was first announced. Microsoft is planning some major strategic announcements in the near future, says Suwanjindar, but Cannes was not the right time.

Over in the Nokia camp we had once of those yelps that makes you wonder where the bark went. Nokia announced the 7700 media phone as its first Series 90 (codename Hildon) platform last fall, and part and parcel of this roadmap was that Series 80, represented by the venerable Communicators, would end up in the out box. But instead of the 7700 or related products showing up in Cannes, we got the 9500 Series 80 platform instead. This is actually quite a nice revisit to the old Communicator, adding slightly more contemporary stuff like 802.11, GPRS, Bluetooth, USB and Edge, but its really stuff that Nokia should have added a year or two ago if it was sticking with the product. This is still basically an OLD platform, and its perpetuation signals a knock-back for the Series 90 successors.

Its worth bearing in mind that with the increased uptake of phone-type smart devices, theres something of a leadership gap opening up in the space unwired PDAs (i.e. vanilla Palms and PocketPCs) currently occupy in the enterprise. Nokia is well aware of this, and particularly well aware of the cost of ownership nightmare presented by connected stuff you can shove in your pocket. But Nokias view that these things ought to be properly managed in the corporate space might just be effecting its ability to throw out a couple of devices and see what happens. So it might well blow the gig anyway.

Symbian isnt quite as far into the Nokia camp as much of the world seems to believe, but arguing this did tend to overshadow its other announcements. It announced Symbian OS 8.0, UIQ 3.0, Panasonics first Symbian phone, and two new licensees, LG and Arima. Arima is particularly interesting because its a Taiwanese OEM/ODM that builds phones and notebook PCs. That is, its precisely the kind of company Microsoft was aiming for when it first blew into the mobile phone market itself. Normally, such news would have been one of Symbians big, positive Cannes stories. The poor PR people must be wondering how the blazes it all came so horribly unpicked when they had such great things to say.

Motorola took advantage of its status as the readiest looking 3G handset manufacturer with the introduction of the A1000 and E1000, the former being a Symbian UIQ device while the latter is a more consumer-oriented design with an 8x zoom camera. In addition, it showed the MPx100 Windows smart phone and a chunkier multi-hinged model, the MPx. But Microsoft appears not to wish to boast about these design wins either, at this juncture.

Linux also features in Motorolas allegedly slimmed down mobile phone platform list. Even though a number of people in Cannes were highly optimistic about Linuxs future in the mobile phone market, it might be smart for manufacturers not to get too excited too early. Some companies whove been building Linux phones report that theyre finding they have to do a lot more building work than theyd anticipated. So although itll no doubt get there, the idea of Linux as a mechanism for just plugging together components and rolling out phone products quickly has probably been oversold.

Another significant Symbian announcement was the companys proud statement that it had achieved its first million licenses in a month. It did 2.76 million in Q4, and 6.67 million over 2003. However, this is significant for a reason Symbian didnt mention: Its really, really low when you look at the whole size of the mobile phone market. Given that Symbian is the smart phone leader, its obvious then that there is no single leading platform, nor is there likely to be one soon. The show didnt have any big leadership announcements because there are no leaders, and the market right now is busy digesting and figuring out how to make money from the hardware improvements its already got.