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2/16/2011
10:28 AM
Fritz Nelson
Fritz Nelson
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Dispatches From Barcelona: Mobile Competition In All Its Glory

HP and Microsoft chase RIM for third place, while Google pulls ahead of the field

Nokia CEO Stephen Elop declared a three-horse race for mobile supremacy here in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress. He's exactly right; it's just that we don't yet know who the third horse will be. There are few market secrets left, save whatever Apple may soon reveal, and the outcome will rest as much on tablets and netbook-like devices -- thin clients, even -- as it will on phones. HP, Microsoft, and Research In Motion are as ready as they'll be. Time to handicap the competition.

iPhone 5 rumors notwithstanding, Mobile World Congress was Google's news event. First, CEO and soon to be executive chairman Eric Schmidt attempted to clear up the company's Android-Chrome dichotomy. All Android versions (phones are running Gingerbread, tablets will run Honeycomb) will consolidate with the next dessert-themed version the company serves up. Second, while Chrome OS is for keyboard-based devices, that, too, will find its way into some kind of integration plan, Schmidt said in his keynote Tuesday night.

The most surprising development came by way of Samsung, which announced not only a magnificent new Android phone (Galaxy S II), but also a 10.1-inch tablet (Galaxy Tab 10.1) running Honeycomb. Alas, neither will be in the U.S. in the near term. More important, and somewhat hidden beneath the flashy exterior of these new devices, sits a raft of new enterprise-class features. Samsung has managed to expose 90 or more enterprise mobile device management and security capabilities, thanks to its partnership with SAP-Sybase.

This is vital. I haven't talked to many Sybase customers, but CIOs may suddenly have an alternative to the BlackBerry, and to shutting out personal side of phones. To make Google's enterprise message even more compelling, VMWare was demonstrating its ability to virtualize Android.

While Android made inroads through Samsung, Nokia and Microsoft made mostly noise. Elops boasts about the billions of dollars Microsoft is paying and saving Nokia for their deal to run Nokia devices on Windows Phone 7 garnered as much attention as Nokia's virtual abandonment of the Symbian (a process that began before Elop's arrival) and MeeGo operating systems. Nokia had relatively little choice: Either become just another Android OEM, or use its significant global footprint to help salvage Windows Phone 7. The benefits for Microsoft are clear; Nokia had better hope its new partner's latest mobile OS do-over works.

For its part, Microsoft is slowly getting into the modern age. The Windows Phone 7 user experience has yet to be declared a success or failure, and an imminent release will add such mind-boggling features as "cut and paste." Later this year, Windows Phone 7 devices will be available on CDMA networks and will get a few additional makeovers, including multitasking, an enhanced Web browser that includes graphics acceleration, and cloud storage via SkyDrive, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said this week at Mobile World Congress.

RIM co-CEO Jim Ballsilie seemed unfazed by Elop's outright dismissal of his company (Elop's three-horse race clearly doesn't include the BlackBerry maker). After all, RIM's Playbook tablet is about a month from shipping, and units are appearing everywhere -- not just at trade show demos, but also in the hands of developers worldwide. The platform is sprouting new applications, from games to enterprise-class workflow (see video directly below) and business intelligence software. And RIM has ensured that carriers will be on board with announcements this week that it's supporting LTE and HSPA+ (it already announced a WiMAX version with Sprint) and integrated carrier billing.

On the wait-and-see list are Hewlett-Packard's WebOS, which the company demonstrated again this week running on new handsets and on its forthcoming TouchPad tablet; and MeeGo, a Linux-based OS that will undoubtedly survive for as long as Intel can manage it. Intel's demonstrations at Mobile World Congress hardly set anyone's hair ablaze, despite its best attempts.

In conversations this week, HP said its new hardware, and the fact that WebOS would run on top of Windows, has renewed developer interest. Some of the company's mobile executives noted that unlike other players (Google and RIM, one presumes), the WebOS version for the HP tablet will very quickly become the one and only WebOS for all Palm devices. It also demonstrated a secure, cloud-based remote printing service that works not only with HP handsets, but also with BlackBerry devices; not just with HP printers, but with others, too. Essentially, your phone, if you subscribe to the cloud service, can find and print to any registered printer. It won't print until you get to the printer destination and enter a special code. This sort of feature is surely an HP advantage.

What's most interesting is that outside of RIM, these companies -- HP, Microsoft, Intel, Google, Apple -- are some of the largest, most successful technology companies in the world -- companies willing to spend on product innovation and marketing and to build a developer base. None can afford to fail. Devices are constantly improving. For example, LG's Optimus 3D captures stereoscopic 3D video; Samsung's Galaxy S II includes a dual-core processor and a Super Amoled Plus display. Meantime, carrier networks are quickly adding bandwidth and HTML 5 is advancing as a mobile application model.

These are all the competitive levelers. How each mobile platform player advances its developer ecosystem could determine the early winner, as each feature advance is so quickly mimicked -- witness HP hinting that WebOS will run on clamshell-style thin client devices, right after Google began showing off Chrome OS. Surely, a handful of devices will mimic Motorola's Atrix as well.

Google's Schmidt spoke passionately in his Mobile World Congress keynote address about how the phone should include the telemetry to monitor and improve personal health. Late last year he talked about NFC and Google's evolving mobile payment ecosystem. The first to bring those life-altering mechanisms to market could also claim the throne for some time.

Apple's secrecy about new, forthcoming iPhones and iPads may build up the excitement, but Google executives seem to have learned the "vision thing" and taken a bit of the shine from Apple. If Samsung can pave the way in the enterprise, RIM's stronghold there could erode. With many lengths to go in this so-called horse race, Google looks like the front runner.

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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