Are true computing platforms emerging in the mobile devices market?


Sunnyvale (CA) - As handheld communications tools evolve into fully capable computing devices, you'd expect different factions among the multitude of brands to converge upon a handful of platforms - the software-based infrastructure around which computing systems are typically built.

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Motorola's A760Linux-based smartphone

In recent months, we've started to see increased signs of convergence activity. Mobile e-mail leader Research in Motion provided its BlackBerry Connect system for the Symbian OS, which is utilized by manufacturers such as Nokia, and presented through carriers such as T-Mobile and Cingular. Then last 27 September, RIM entered into a development agreement with Intel. Just a few days earlier, Palm stunned the mobile device market with its announcement that some new Treo smartphones (including one that will probably be called Treo 700w) would be endowed with Windows Mobile in place of the once-venerable Palm OS. This as Motorola continues to make steady inroads, as it has since 2003, in introducing Linux into handheld devices.

If handheld computers and personal computers are, as some have argued, merging together, then you should be seeing some evidence that the platforms that define PCs should extend their purview into the handheld realm. Platforms are what define PCs, much more so than even the brands of their manufacturers, as is evidenced by the many Tom's Hardware Guide readers who are themselves Windows or Linux system builders. The growing prominence of the Windows brand name and the Linux moniker in handhelds appears, at least on the surface, to be testament to the accuracy of this observation. But handheld devices are themselves merging with cell phones - communications devices - which means they're entering a market that many analysts argue is defined more by carriers than by platforms.

"I think one departure from the PC world is that, in the wireless world, the carriers have a lot of say about what kinds of applications and features get installed on those phones," Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for NPD Techworld, told TG Daily. By contrast, explained Rubin, PC manufacturers have a more limited voice in what applications get installed on their systems; and of course, users can make their own changes to that application set later. "Not a lot of consumers are moving to install software on their phones," he added, "and so the operating system does not feature as prominently into their choices."

Rubin believes that Motorola's steadily increasing reliance upon Linux is "a bet on the commoditization of mobile phone operating systems" - not so much a response to some perceived customer demand for Linux on cell phones. Linux' strength in handheld devices is not so much a consequence of its technical capabilities as a computing platform, he argued, as it is a growing base of willing developers who are not only able but willing to provide PDAs with a plethora of applications, at least some of which are bound to be remotely useful. As this developer base grows, its center of power shifts from America to markets such as China and India. This developer base, Rubin concluded, is what Motorola relies upon to meet demands for functionality and applications...not from cell phone users, he said, but from the carriers that choose Motorola.