Forming alliances to help mobiles talk

The mobile phone companies were busy at Comdex Fall. Sony's president and chief operating officer Kunitake Ando announced a deal...

The mobile phone companies were busy at Comdex Fall. Sony's president and chief operating officer Kunitake Ando announced a deal with AOL Time Warner. Jorma Ollila, chairman and chief executive officer of Nokia, announced that he was licensing Nokia's operating software to rivals.

In fact, more than a dozen mobile phone companies joined Nokia to create "a global and open mobile software and services market".

The good thing about the mobile phone market is that almost any handset can be used to call almost any other handset. That is fine, as long as you stick to voice.

But when it comes to handling data, such as phone numbers, appointments, multimedia messages, ring tones and games, there is nothing like as much compatibility. The new alliance is an attempt to solve that problem.

Of course, it would have been better if companies had thought about this stuff before they had shipped almost a billion mobile phones and if their solution was not just to sell a billion replacements. However, the computer industry is hardly in a position to criticise.

Either way, it is critical for the mobile phone business to upgrade users to phones that can handle data services: they need the money.

Over the past decade, the cost of using a mobile for voice has plunged from outrageous to merely expensive, and prices are likely to keep falling. Future profits will almost certainly have to come from data services.

According to Nokia, this new "multi-supplier ecosystem" of data services will be built on open industry standards such as Wap 2.0, XHTML, Multimedia Messaging Service, and SyncML. Components may also include Sun's Java and Symbian's operating system, neither of which is an open industry standard as far as I can see.

In his speech, Ollila also mentioned XHTML and Cascading Style Sheets, which he said "will end the distinction between wireless and the Web".

But all this assumes the mobile phone industry will remain separate from the computer and communications industries that actually set the standards for data. And how likely is that?

It seems to me more likely that the mobile phone industry will ultimately be obliged to follow the computer industry's data standards for the Web and instant messaging. In the long run, consumers will not settle for anything less, as the failure of Wap 1.1 would seem to show.

Jack Schofield is computer editor of The Guardian

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