Microsoft, mobile phone saviour

I recently upgraded my mobile phone. Of course, that is no big news, many people do the same on a regular basis, dividing the...

I recently upgraded my mobile phone. Of course, that is no big news, many people do the same on a regular basis, dividing the world into several categories of phone ownership:

  • People, like me, who choose a phone so small that there is a danger it will slip between the atoms on their desk and disappear into quantum space

  • Those that go for expensive status symbols and make themselves prime targets for muggers

  • The '"size matters" brigade - streamlined executives who carry bricks disguised as Nokia or Ericsson communicators

  • The gadget man, also like me, who has a Pocket PC, a Palm and a mobile phone, and can never quite make up his mind which to use.

But wait, a solution is just around the corner and no, it is not a DoCoMo iMode phone. It is a "Mintel", my nickname for the next great leap for Windows - the cheap smartphone.

Why, asks Microsoft, is building a mobile phone so expensive and so difficult? Why don't we have any real standards and why, God forbid, is the mobile phone market dominated by a cartel of familiar-sounding names? It's almost a monopoly!

Actually, Microsoft has a point. Why can't we walk into Dixons and buy a cheap phone from Casio? The solution, according to Bill Gates, is for Microsoft and Intel to collaborate on a template that will let anyone build a smartphone - which, by happy coincidence, will also run Windows.

Other than the Windows piece of the puzzle, Microsoft has a valid argument. While you might be able to walk into Radio Shack and buy the component parts you need to make a cell phone, getting it through certification into production demands millions of pounds on deposit and a friendly carrier. Mobile phone networks are quirky things, so any device that plugs into one has to be "110% reliable" or risk facing the wrath of a million unhappy teenagers.

Unable to make any real headway with the Nokias of this world, and very much aware of the potential market for a billion or so mobile devices over the next five years - not forgetting, of course, the whole .net thing - Microsoft has decided to work with Intel and do, very much what it did back in the late 1980s: define its own standard and see if the world follows.

The problem is not functionality, but volume. Mobile phones are often fashion accessories, and smartphones, unless they can be squeezed into a much smaller and more attractive package, aren't sexy unless you are a bit of a geek. While it is quite possible that smartphone Mintels could squeeze Texas Instruments and Motorola and come to dominate the "road warrior" PDA space in five years' time, I can't quite see Nokia or Samsung being knocked off their diamond-studded designer perches without a struggle.

Simon Moores is chairman of the Research Group

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