Showdown on the handheld front

Two years ago, there was very little activity concerning the handheld PDA and smartphone front save for a few devices based on the Symbian S60 / UIQ platform and Windows Mobile (CE) platform.

Then Apple brought their touchscreen-enabled all-singing all-dancing iPhone on the market and businessmen became addicted to Research In Motion’s Blackberry smartphone with push e-mail functionality. Now Nokia (Symbian S60), Google Android and Microsoft have jumped on the same bandwagon as these previous companies. In the case of Nokia and Microsoft, they have released handset designs based on the iPhone-style “touchscreen” model as well as a QWERTY-style keypad. Some have even designed a handset that works sideways and uses a pull-out QWERTY keyboard. As well, Google had built up the Android Linux distribution for smartphone applications and a few manufacturers are releasing smartphones bast on this platform; while Palm, known for the classic “Palm Pilot” PDA, have come back from the dead with the Palm Pre smartphone platform.

This had stirred up things very significantly with the contract-driven high-end smartphone market. 

A new expectation was required for this class of device in the way they operated, the features they came with and how the additional software that extends their functionality is marketed. The devices will have 3G (or better) cellular voice and data interface, 802.11g WPA2 Wi-Fi networking, Bluetooth connectivity while being capable of working as a digital video camera, phone, portable media player, personal navigation unit and Internet terminal at least. Additional programs will be typically sold or provided through a PC-based or over-the-air application store hosted by the device’s manufacturer or platform provider.

As part of this showdown on the smartphone front, handset designers, operating-system and applications developers will start to develop very interesting handsets and handheld applications. The handset designers and operating-system developers will end up at the point which was common for consumer electronics in the 1970s and 1980s where manufacturers pitted themselves against each other to design the best product and as models evolved, the features that were in the top-end model gradually appeared on midrange and low-end models. Mobile service providers will also have to provide cost-effective mobile service plans which consider increased data usage on these devices as they become work and lifestyle information terminals for their users.

This could lead to inclusion of digital radio and TV reception in some of the models; 802.11n Wi-Fi networking; OLED user displays, improved battery runtime on “full-feature” use; and the like.

As far as applications are concerned, developers who write handheld applications, whether operating as a dedicated program or as a front-end to a Web page, will need to make the applications suit the different platforms and application stores. This may be easier for the Microsoft and Symbian platforms because the developer can have the option of providing the application through their Web site, a competing application store like Handango, or a mobile phone operator as well as the official application store for the platform.

There is a risk that certain features will be missing from the smartphone market during the smartphone platform showdown. One will be the support for WPS “quick-setup” functionality for Wi-Fi networks. These devices really need to benefit from this technology – how could you enter a WPA passphrase that is “security-ideal” in to a phone with a 12-key keypad or “picking through” a small QWERTY keypad. As well, most of the desireable wireless routers and access points that are being released at the moment are now equipped with WPS, These phones should have support for WPS, preferably as part of the operating system’s Wi-Fi functionality, but at least as a reliable application that the user downloads to the device for free.

As well, DLNA media-management support should be available across all of the platforms, preferably as a playback and download (to local storage) function and a media control point. Similarly, the phone could be set up to act as a media server so that pictures taken with the phone’s camera can be shown on larger screens. At the moment, Symbian is providing the functionality native to their S60 3rd Edition platform and third parties, mostly hobbyist developers, are developing implementations for use on the Apple iPhone and Windows Phone platforms.

It will be very interesting over these next few model years as we observe mobile phone manufacturers, smartphone operating-system developers, independent application developers and mobile phone service providers grapple with this new reality.

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