Mobile standards? Cannes do!

It must be pretty hard to escape the ringing of cell phones in Cannes.

The French city is best known for its international film festival, which runs every spring and usually offers the world its first look at the films with Academy Award potential. For a few days, many of Hollywood’s biggest

stars vamp it up on the red carpets — and probably turn to their cell phones the minute they make it backstage. So do directors, agents and scores of media people.

Long before the first celebrity arrives, however, the 3GSM World Congress gathers an even wider variety of cell phone users. Running this week, the event includes mobile communications heavyweights like Nokia and Ericsson and is by far Europe’s largest trade show for the wireless industry. This year, the thousands of attendees will no doubt be calling each other to buzz about the attempt by Microsoft and Intel to change the rules by which the battle for market share is fought.

News broke before the event officially began that Microsoft would work with Intel and Texas Instruments (TI) to create a reference design that would work in multiple devices. Nokia is reportedly working with TI on the same thing. Once these are released (Microsoft says it will have its design available later this year), the floodgates holding back possible new entrants to the mobile communications space will come swinging open.

Although a Microsoft/Intel/TI standard sounds like a sure bet given the firms’ historic aggressiveness, their European counterparts are no slouches. In fact, the last time we saw an IT alliance comparable to Microsoft’s 1981 appointment as IBM’s PC OS supplier was in 1997, when Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola pledged support for Psion’s EPOC 32 as a single common operating system for smart phones and digital communicators. Highly regarded as feature-rich with many applications, EPOC effectively blindsided Microsoft’s attempts to conquer the mobile space with Windows CE. It also spawned Symbian, the company that has the support of the industry’s major cell phone makers, including Nokia.

The difference now is the way personal digital assistants (PDAs) have evolved and how the standards will affect them. Symbian and Nokia will continue to thrive in the phone segment because their approach is somewhat loose. The value-add from the hardware (if there is any left) comes from the interfaces that the phone makers create, and Symbian software gives them room to maneuvre. Microsoft likes to control the interface, the applications and, well, everything else. Many of the successful PDA makers are also desktop vendors like Compaq and Hewlett-Packard, so they’re used to it, which means Microsoft will do well in PDAs. HP, in fact, announced plans for a PDA phone based on the Microsoft/Intel/TI platform Tuesday.

Given that Palmsource, the former OS side of Palm Inc., still owns the bulk of the PDA market, any discussion of a Microsoft victory through its reference design or its Pocket PC Phone OS is premature. But Palmsource would be wise to get more involved in these standards efforts as they emerge. For once, it would be nice to see a standards-based IT industry in which more than a couple of companies succeed.

sschick@plesman.com

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