Microsoft and Nokia are squaring up to be the two main contenders for mobile data devices. Both are preparing reference designs -- one with Pocket PC, one with Symbian - to let third parties build smartphones by just putting the blocks together. It worked with PCs, the logic goes, so let's kick-start the 3G revolution in the same way.
The analogy is scarier for Nokia. While IBM managed to establish its own PC hardware standard with unparalleled efficiency, it didn't help the company much. A thousand cheaper alternatives crowded into the marketplace, happy that they could sell their kit with the confidence born of compatibility. The real winner, of course, was Microsoft, which cornered the market and made sure that anyone who came close to offering a compatible alternative to DOS and Windows got shut down sharpish.
Software sells hardware is the oldest adage in the computer salesdroid's programming. These days that can be extended to services sell software, but Symbian is still effectively starting from scratch while Pocket PC has a big base of CE machines. Nokia's hardware advantage in phones may turn out to be as ephemeral as IBM's advantage in pre-PC computers: it's what you can do with the kit, not what the kit actually is, that matters.