Going Modular

Modular software for phones will be the hot news out of Cannes this week says European wireless editor Guy Kewney.

Everybody knows there are several operating systems for phones: Symbian, Windows, Palm. So why would anybody come up with a new one?

But thats just what Texas Instruments has announced in its joint venture with IXI Mobile.

At this weeks 3GSM World Congress conference and exhibition in Cannes, one of the big surprises is going to be the arrival of the Neo brand of phones from IXI Mobile. There arent many people who are prepared to launch a new phone brand in the current market, but Neo will have some heavyweight support. One of the reasons for that is its new operating software.

Astonishingly few people know what the IXI Mobile secret is. Its simple enough: Bluetooth. You take the phone and split it into its components-- handset, camera, and keyboard/display—and then link them all together wirelessly. The NeoChat component, for example, eliminates the need to squint at a tiny screen and puzzle out the T9 Tegic coding to get 26 alphabetic letters out of 10 numeric keys. The NeoSnap component allows you to have a camera phone in areas where camera phones are banned. And the NeoFone component controls these and other companion devices. Perhaps a NeoWatch will follow or even a NeoPen or a NeoBoy console? All were demonstrated, conceptually at least, at last years 3GSM Congress.

But IXI and TI have spotted two more trends they think are even more important.

The first trend is bothering a lot of people in the mobile carrier business in Asia already, and it will eventually disturb other world markets as well. Its the pressing need to be able to update the software in phones. The other trend, which is still hidden from most observers, is the need for a mobile phone to be able to function as a wireless router.

Why the latter has remained obscure, beats me. But in some respects, wireless gear is living in the past, able only to run communications tasks in the foreground. You can run your IRC chat session, as long as you dont make the mistake of trying to cut and paste into another application, for example. As soon as the Palm OS sees the application move into the background, it stops running it. Some of Palms rivals are better in this respect, but not much! Each of the current OSes has its own weird restrictions.

The most pressing need, and the one which is going to be a major theme of the World Congress next week, is the one about doing updates. Everybody in the business knows (even if the customers dont) that one major manufacturer caught a huge cold last year by launching a phone with a (relatively minor) software flaw. The flaw may have been minor, but it needed to be fixed. The only way to fix it was a factory recall. "Never again!" went the message to systems designers.

So the system adopted by DoOnGo is now being sold to Japanese carriers, according to DoOnGo founder Steve Duncan. He says it is being used, first, as a way of "modularizing" the software in their phones and, second, as a way of updating those software modules.