The Battle Over Brains for Future Smartphones is Heating Up

Brooks: Symbian, Palm and Microsoft vie for OS control

Our cell phones are getting smarter, but its not clear wholl ultimately win the struggle to give handsets their brains.

With the 3GSM World Congress and CeBIT wrapping up, and with CTIA now under way, the air is thick with smartphone announcements and releases, and platform diversity seems to be the overall theme.

Sprint has announced plans to ship two Windows-Powered phones—the Samsung i700and the Hitachi G-1000—both of which run Pocket PC Phone Edition, the same flavor of Microsofts mobile OS that powers the T-Mobile communicator that we reviewed in August.

These are two rather attractive PDA/phone hybrids—Im particularly interested in the thumb-keyboard that graces the G-1000—but both are fairly large, and theyll likely carry large price tags as well.

Perhaps more interesting for their smaller size will be Microsofts more phone-centric devices, like the one thatll be built by Compal. Weve grown accustomed to our phones shrinking in size, and most people wont be willing to sacrifice portability in their handsets in exchange for PDA functionality.

The trouble for Microsoft here, though, is that the big mobile phone players arent in a hurry to hand control of the smartphone platform space over to Redmond, particularly when theyve teamed to develop and push a mobile platform of their own, the Symbian OS.

Samsung, which last month joined Ericsson, Matsushita, Motorola, Nokia, Siemens and Sony Ericsson in the Symbian consortium, has announced the Symbian-based SGH D 700, which also carries a digital camera.

For now, though, Samsung is hedging its bets with a multiplatform strategy, as the firm is set also to ship the SGH-i500, which will be the first smartphone to ship running Palms OS 5 mobile platform—and Samsung is planning to ship a Pocket PC-based unit as well.

Its said that consumers dont care which OS their mobile devices run. That may be true, but users do care about the applications that are available for their devices, so choice of platform will be an important consideration, if indirectly. This poses a challenge for Symbian, which enjoys a smaller and less-mature development community than Microsoft or Palm. And, of course, while Palm makes much of its own developer pool, its in the midst of a major platform migration to the new, ARM-based Palm OS 5.

Itll be interesting to see how Motorola fares with its own multiplatform strategy, in which the firm is developing high-end, Symbian-based devices alongside basic and mid-range phones based on Linux and Java, beginning with the A760 handset.

The Linux/Java platform option promises to enable smartphone makers to plug into existing hardware and software development resources, while providing these firms with the flexibility to differentiate themselves from competitors that a tightly controlled platform like that from Microsoft doesnt offer.

Eventually, a clear leader or leaders will emerge, but for now, the diversity that exists among mobile device platforms should make the road to smartphone maturity an intriguing one.

Wholl win the race for mobile platform supremacy? Wholl fade away first? Write to me at