Wi-Fi Range Wars on the Way?

Opinion: Wi-Fi promises to broaden its horizons as PalmSource looks to Linux, Symbian eyes the mass market and Microsoft mixes it up in the mobile market.

Prepare for a range war. If theres been any significant movement in the mobile and wireless industry in the past year—and there has been a lot—one thing is certain: Were moving outward in giant strides.

Find me an executive who doesnt sport a BlackBerry or data-capable smart phone among his or her inventory of necessary devices. Connectivity—the ability to get to critical data, whenever and from wherever you need it—continues to drive the market.

Granted, the percentage of smart phones in the market remains dwarfed by that of consumer cell phones, but developments on the horizon signal that could be ready to change—starting with the way we define cell phones.

Looking to the coming year, Symbian Ltd., purveyor of the operating system that now dominates that market, will be moving the platform and its ability to accept third-party applications into the mass market.

"We could have a discussion for two or three hours about what is a smart phone," said Simon Garth, vice president of market development at Symbian.

In the Symbian camp, he said, the definition is "a phone designed with an operating system with open interfaces that people can write additional software for."

Look for third-party mobile apps to proliferate in the coming year—and not just on the Symbian OS. PalmSource entered the realm of open interfaces earlier this month with its acquisition of China MobileSoft.

The move, in some analysts estimation, was necessary for the former Palm Inc. spinoff to meet the rising competition its getting from Symbian and Microsoft. The move aligns PalmSource with a community of developers eager to extend the Linux platform to the mobile masses.

Earlier in the year, Microsoft even liberalized its licensing terms for Windows CE—all of which points to lively competition among mobile applications developers.

And what will those applications be? For Symbians part, Garth predicts that his company will bring increased sound and video capabilities to phones and handhelds. And given the demand for photo-capable phones in the consumer market, the prediction appears on target.

We may also see video-capable smart phones make inroads into the enterprise in areas where field force activities demand visual communications.

Next page: Wi-Fi takes a stretch.