Mobile giants battle for next generation

Platform developers hedge their bets with wide range of smartphone formats at the GSM World Conference in Cannes

For all the talk of convergence, the world of mobile Internet devices is actually getting more and more diverse, as companies such as Microsoft, Nokia, Ericsson and Palm compete to predict what it is exactly that consumers will want next.

At stake is a leading role in the wireless Internet, which is expected to combine the revolutionary qualities of the Internet today with the explosive worldwide popularity of mobile phones.

Microsoft showed off prototypes of its "smartphone" platform, codenamed Stinger, for the first time in public at the GSM World Congress in Cannes, France, which started Tuesday. Also on display were new handsets combining voice and computer functions from Ericsson and Nokia, as well as i-mode Internet phones from NTT DoCoMo and a seemingly endless gallery of high-tech concepts for other wireless devices.

Microsoft, which barely made a showing at last year's conference, appears this year with three different wireless products: a microbrowser for ordinary mobile phones such as Sony's CMD-Z5, a platform for wireless-enabled handhelds, already on the way from France's Sagem and others, and now Stinger, which is supposed to add the functions of a personal digital assistant (PDA) to a mobile phone without making it any more difficult to use.

The UK's Sendo and Japan's Mitsubishi will manufacture Stinger, which will begin trials this spring and launch by the end of the year.

Backers of Microsoft's main rival Symbian also showed off a wide range of feature-rich mobile devices, including PDAs and clamshell computers with mobile phone functionality built in. Symbian backers include Psion, Nokia and Ericsson -- this spring Nokia plans to launch its full-featured, colour-screen PDA with a keyboard that folds up into a weighty phone. The 9210 Communicator is expected to hit the market in volume this spring.

Both Microsoft's and Symbian's strategies underscore how fragmented the mobile Internet market will become, without any clear indication of which form factors consumers will want. Manufacturers and experts say handsets will only get more diverse, especially with the advent of Bluetooth, which will allow all the different gadgets to talk to one another.

"No one form factor will reign," says Ed Suwanjindar, product manager with Microsoft's Mobile Devices division. "Ultimately, the choice of which one to use is very personal."

But divergence also has a down side, such as incompatibilities between online services and particular mobile phones, or gadgets that can't communicate with each other.

It wasn't unusual to see delegates at the Congress this week with different makes of mobile phones and PDAs struggling to exchange an electronic business card via infra-red connection, and finally resorting to writing the information down by hand.

Take me to the Mobile Technology lounge

David coursey got a sneak peek of the two new Microsoft devices, code-named Stinger and Stirling in a recent visit to Redmond, although the phones are being unveiled for the first time this week in France. Coursey thinks Stinger looks good, Stirling isn't much, and traditional PDAs (and the Palm OS) are still tough competitors. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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