Freedom beckons for mobile users

Microsoft's redefinition of the phone as a computer could transform the comms business

Microsoft's redefinition of the phone as a computer could transform the comms business

You can now buy a phone that picks up corporate e-mail easily, gobbles up thousands of phone numbers from Outlook, and that you could integrate into your enterprise relationship management or customer relationship management or other system. You could even write your own applications for it, though that will have to wait.

Still, it's clearly not your grandfather's telephonic appliance. It is, rather, a computer that looks and works like a mobile phone.

All this is Microsoft's idea. Who else would try to redefine the phone business? But it could be tremendously liberating.

Today's mobile users are like mainframe terminal users were in the days when dinosaurs ruled the earth: you get what you are given, like it or lump it, and you pay through the nose. In the future, they could be more like PC users: able to install the applications they want.

The first step on this long road was last month's launch of the Orange SPV phone running the Smartphone 2002 version of the PocketPC version of Windows CE. The hardware is designed by Taiwan's HPC, which is also responsible for building the Compaq iPaq and O2's impressive PDA-phone, the xda.

Orange's new phone does offer some installable applications, the first being All-Location's GPRS Traffic Counter and All-Explorer. However, the SPV is available only on an Orange contract, and the company is keeping a tight rein on its device. Microsoft has added a certification system so applications need permission to run, and the SPV won't run anything that Orange doesn't certify.

Worse, even users who think it's cool to have a smartphone platform will still have to want the phone. Whether they will fancy the SPV - it stands for Sound, Pictures and Video - remains to be seen.

After a couple of weeks' trial, my conclusion is: "must do better". It's great to have a big colour screen, but it takes up so much space that it cramps the keypad. The buttons are now too small, and inconvenient to use.

In fact, I think the whole design is wrong. My recent experience of fliptop phones in South Korea has convinced me that the fliptop is a far superior design. It doubles the surface area available for the user interface, protects the screen, and stops the phone making calls while bouncing around in a pocket.

After handling Microsoft's smartphone prototype, Stinger, at the exhibition Comdex 2000, I wish I could say "I told you so". But at the time I didn't realise its importance.

However, the benefit of a platform is that different manufacturers can try different approaches. If the platform works, people who don't like Orange's phone, or its contract, can expect more attractive options in the future.

Jack Schofield is computer editor at the Guardian

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