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banner Friday, 18 February, 2000, 15:54 GMT
The mobile threat

Microsoft's shrunken Windows systems
Microsoft faces a battle in the mobile age

By Martin Veitch, Editor, IT Week

The recent progress of the Symbian consortium casts further doubt on whether Microsoft will be able to transfer its dominance of the desktop personal computer (PC) to the new generation of handheld internet access devices.

While Microsoft has monopolised PC screens at home and in business through its DOS and Windows operating system software, the coming trend is towards small devices combining mobile communications and computing. And, for once, Microsoft is not best placed.

Unlikely as it sounds, its potential nemesis has its roots in the UK.

Symbian is a consortium of leading digital headset makers, including Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson which will use London-based Psion's Epoc operating system in 'smartphones': devices that can be used for voice calls, email, personal organiser functions, internet, remote access to data stored on enterprise servers, and videoconferencing.

For the consumer, smartphones will expand the capabilities of communicating; for business users, they could replace laptops as the primary mobile appliance.

Streaming colour video

A salesman could check stock availability and take customer orders, for example.

As an adjunct to smartphones, Symbian also plans to be at the heart of other 'smart' devices such as pagers that could have additional features such as the ability to carry images of the sender.

Last week, Symbian wowed US developers by showing phones with streaming colour video and the momentum building for the firm is powerful.

As well as having the muscle of the leading handset makers behind it, the Epoc technology platform is seen by experts as potentially having the performance and thrifty energy requirement necessary for smartphones.

Symbian is also building relationships that are beyond the realms of technology.

A recent agreement will see IBM enterprise software managing Symbian-based devices, for instance.

Lean, mean, code

Microsoft, by contrast, has never been noted for its ability to produce compact code.

While the 'bloatware' concept of adding new features that demand faster chips and more RAM and hard disk space has worked in PCs, the same paradigm does not apply on handheld devices.

Instead, lean software which does not keep users waiting and long battery life are preferred, even if that means software feature sets are trimmed.

Witness the success of the Palm Computing line which has sold in its millions despite its bare-bones jotter, agenda and other software applications.

That said, Microsoft does in some ways have a head-start in handhelds.

Its ace in the hole is the legion of developers it can attract both because of its size and because of the attractions for developers of writing for a variant of the familiar Windows environment.

Hedging bets

Hardware developers also feel confident that Microsoft will succeed in the long-term.

Even if some names have disappeared from the initial roster and buyers remain as scarce as hens' teeth, firms such as Compaq and Hewlett-Packard are still building Windows-based handheld devices.

Microsoft is also working hard with telecoms firms, content owners and service providers to ensure it has the alliances in place to make cut-down variants of Windows such as its Pocket PC software a partner for communications devices.

Also, many firms are hedging their bets and opting to be in both camps.

Symbian founding member Ericsson, for example, last December agreed to develop wireless internet applications with Microsoft.

Developers of key database and other critical applications are also opting to play safe and develop for both Symbian and Microsoft.

Wearable devices

With a flood of smartphone products due this year, the picture should become clearer, but it is not only in the area of communicators and handheld devices that Microsoft is being challenged on the anytime-anywhere concept of internet access.

Swatch, Casio and others are developing wristwatch communications devices for access to news, sports results, share prices and so on.

IBM and NEC have shown 'wearable' computers and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is even working on internet-capable training shoes which would let wearers swap electronic business cards by tapping feet.

It seems that no concept, however bizarre, will be ignored.

In the end, the success of Microsoft and its challengers will be as much based on their ability to build bridges with partners who have the content people want to see, and the right business model to be successful.

As with today's mobile phones, smartphones and other internet access gizmos will often be given away to sell subscription services and a pot of gold lures the organisations that can put together the right packages.

Microsoft may be behind on technology terms but it knows the race is not always won by the swiftest - or even those with the best technology.

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