Barcelona, Spain -- Apple's iPhone, Google's Android OS platform and Nokia's Maps 2.0 GPS technology are striking a blow against cellular network operators' closed and lucrative business model. Where the operators have long been accustomed to dictating services, applications, device definitions and--most of all--prices, last week's Mobile World Congress here heard a cry for openness: for applications and services that can run independently of cellular operators on any mobile device.
The expectations raised by Apple, Google and Nokia do not suggest any sort of united front against the establishment. Nokia, for example, is poised to clash with Google on GPS-enabled Internet. Apple, needing software developers for its iPhone, may end up recruiting against Google, which will be tapping the same labor pool to hire open-source gurus for the Android software development platform for mobile phones.
Nonetheless, the forces loosed by the three companies have sent chip vendors and software suppliers scrambling to meet key requirements for the next generation of phones. The ability to handle full, native Web browsing, including YouTube, is high on that list, as is running a host of open-source, Linux-based mobile operating systems, such as Android. Also critical is integration of GPS capability offering map-accurate positioning both indoors and outdoors, without draining battery power. And naturally, touchscreen solutions are in huge demand among handset vendors eager to emulate Apple's iPhone success.
Many executives in the mobile industry recognize the market shift and share a common anxiety: that content and service providers will relegate carriers to a "dumb pipe" subsidiary role.
"In the platform strategies here, does the carrier get enabled or disintermediated?" asked Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of mobile-device maker Research in Motion.
Most vocal in its intent to offer operator-independent services was Nokia, whose president and CEO, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, declared the company will "reshape the Internet." The Finnish mobile-phone maker's naked ambition may be justified; Nokia's global share reached 40 percent at the end of 2007.
Maps 2.0 is key to Nokia's quest. Nokia calls the technology "context-aware Internet" that combines multimedia features, Web browsing and assisted GPS. "We can bring more-relevant and more-powerful context" to users, Kallasvuo claimed.
Niklas Savander, Nokia's executive vice president of services and software, predicted, "By adding context--such as time, place and people--to the Internet, the Web will become something very different from the one you have today."
The beta version of Maps 2.0 will be available later this month, with Kallasvuo promising to take "navigation out of the car and bring it to the sidewalk." As a user snaps pictures with a camera phone, for example, Maps 2.0 can simultaneously store GPS coordinates in a metadata file, a capability known as geotagging.
Thus, Savander said, "location is no longer an application, but becomes a fabric of the Internet." In another example, he said the handset's map can automatically display "where your friends are."
Chip vendors, too, are enthusiastic about proposals for GPS-enabled Internet features. "GPS could increase the use of the Internet," predicted Tommi Uhari, a former Nokia executive who now is general manager of the mobile, multimedia and communications group at STMicroelectronics. "GPS acts as a context filter, [bypassing] unnecessary information."
Huge potential volumes are driving chip vendors to GPS, said Kanwar Chadha, founder and vice president of marketing at SiRF Technology, a pioneering GPS silicon supplier. Nokia plans to sell 35 million units of GPS-enabled phones this year. "That's less than 10 percent of the mobile handsets Nokia ships in total," Chadha observed. "Imagine when every phone comes with GPS."
SiRF has aligned with Google as a member of the Open Handset Alli- ance, promoting the An- droid platform. Chadha said his company will play a critical role in folding "location awareness" into phones based on Google's new OS. Google itself sees maps as integral to its mobile operations (see story, below).
Many no longer call simple "point A to point B" navigation the primary function for handset GPS. "People love maps," said Michael Halbherr, vice president at Nokia. "They play with maps, they look at maps."
In the first click, said SiRF's Chadha, handset GPS "shows what's around you. It then offers useful information [about what's] around you. How to get there becomes the third functionality."
Once Google starts asking users to share, blog and contribute information through their GPS-enabled phones, that data must be placed in an interoperable platform. And that's the point where Nokia's Savander, for one, wonders how open Android really is. "Will the users of a handset built on the Android platform have a choice of using Yahoo in addition to Google? I don't know," he said.
Broadcom, NXP Semiconductors, Qualcomm, ST and Texas Instruments showed off the first implementations of Android at Mobile World Congress. The platform raises questions for chip makers, notably what it will mean to be an open-source manufacturer in a chip market as competitive as that for mobile-handset application processors. Since the driver source code will provide unprecedented visibility into the functionality of the chips, several IC vendors confirmed they have had internal discussions about Android's implications (see story, page 4).
But the philosophy of the Open Handset Alliance is to "offer multiple handset vendors access to the Android platform through the support of open-source activities," said Avner Goren, worldwide director of strategic marketing for TI's wireless-terminals business unit. The alliance allows OEMs to build phones using the common platform by regularly adding and enhancing features, he ex- plained, while going much more deeply into "implementation definitions."
"The Android platform consists of a full software stack, starting from a Linux kernel and going all the way up to applications," said Goren.
NXP has worked on various Linux-based mobile-phone platforms, such as Purple Labs and Azingo. "A $100 smart phone is something China would be very interested in," said Marc Cetto, executive vice president at NXP. But does the world need yet another Linux phone platform? "Driven by Google, serious money is behind Android. I wouldn't discount it," he said.
Richard Doherty, principal of market watcher Envisioneering (Seaford, N.Y.), sees Android as Google's effort "to smoke out eager, talented software developers in hopes of exploring the limits of software enhancements for both server and clients."
Noting that Apple is scheduled to re- lease its iPhone software development kit soon, Doherty said that "the thing to watch now is how many talented 'delegates'--software developers--Apple and Google pick up in this race."
Full native browsing
"Freeing the Internet from the limitations of the desktop," as Nokia CEO Kallasvuo put it, was a running theme at the Mobile World Congress. Full Internet access, supplanting the operators' walled-garden approach, is inevitable, but the success of Apple's iPhone is accelerating the full, native Web browser as a new requirement for cell phones.
"Within a year, people will be doing YouTube and Facebook on their handsets," predicted Rob Coombs, director of mobile solutions at ARM.
Coombs called the ARM11 processor "a tipping point" and said the core has already "opened the door" to such features as the ability to read e-mail on cell phones. With the launch of the ARM Cortex-A8 processor, 2008 heralds an even bigger leap in performance in handset devices, he said, allowing a phone to "boot CNN in seconds," for example.
On2 Technologies launched a multiformat configurable RTL hardware de- coder at the show. The Hantro 8190 lets mobile-phone designers add decoding capabilities for mobile video (H.264, VC-1), Internet video (Adobe Flash, used in YouTube), broadcast video (MPEG-2) and videoconferencing (H.263). The "living room revolution" is transforming mobile-handset requirements, said Eero Kaikkonen, On2 Technologies' executive vice president and chief marketing officer.
In another presentation, Opera Software (Oslo, Norway) showed off its new Opera Mobile 9.5 full native browser. Many experts believe the browser could provide an experience rivaling or surpassing that of Apple's iPhone.
Unlike the company's Opera Mini, which uses a remote server to preprocess Web pages before sending them to a phone to put the Internet on any device, Opera Mobile 9.5 makes a point of bringing an "iPhone experience to any feature phone or smart phone," a company spokeswoman said. That will let users interact with content exactly as they do on their PCs, she said. n
-- Additional reporting by David Benjamin and Mark Kirstein