If you want to know which way the technological wind is blowing, later this year, vendors will have to decide whether to push product through the PC channel or phone retailers. there's probably no better man to ask than Nick Negroponte, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and widely hailed as an IT prophet. For the past decade, Negroponte has been predicting a switch in the infrastructures supporting both phone and television networks.
Whereas televisions - especially the generation of Web TVs - traditionally received broadcasts via aerials, Negroponte predicted that a cable-fed medium would evolve. Where in the past telephones have been hooked to land lines, he predicted that they would become primarily mobile.
He even goes so far as to suggest it will only be a matter of time before we'll all be barking into our cuff links, Inspector Gadget style, as mobiles become more miniaturised and voice recognition eliminates the need to tap in numbers physically.
So far, the professor has yet to be proved wrong. Cable TV is rapidly growing in popularity, particularly in the US, while mobile phones are so ubiquitous that even primary school kids have them, as do 84 per cent of business people. Indeed, in the three month run-up to Christmas, 2.5 million mobiles were sold in the UK alone, bringing the number of British users to 13 million - about a quarter of the population. Not bad, considering they were only introduced to the nation in 1985.
But in truth, all this is old news. The next phase - digital convergence - is already upon us. It's a transition that pits two massive industries against each other, but one which offers dealers significant, fresh markets to tap. Manufacturers of the next generation of smartphones, pagers and palmtops only have to decide whether their gizmos should be sold through phone retailers or PC resellers.
That said, mobile communications have largely boasted an IT pedigree - until now. Psion was one of the first companies in the world to introduce handheld PCs, whereas wireless Lans have been around for ages. Despite this, competing technologies have been held back, either by their inability to integrate with other devices, or a communications range limited by bandwidth or protocol. For example, it has only been in the past few years that, thanks to the GSM standard, mobile phones have been able to operate across Europe. In the US, however, CDMA prevails.
Clive Girling, managing director of mobile computing distributor Portable Add-Ons, believes that over the next few years the market will divide roughly into three - information receivers, covering the next wave of pagers and smartphones; information integrators, embracing clam-shell PCs such as Psion and CE machines; and information creators, covering traditional laptops and notebooks.
Although the internet has largely negated the problem of how computers swap information, a number of issues remain outstanding. Granted, the smallest handheld can access information held on a mainframe via a Web server - a feat nigh on impossible just a few years ago - and phone operators have, and are, introducing faster, cheaper services such as ISDN. While both these developments have revolutionised terrestrial communication links, wireless communications have been in the lap of the gods - literally.
Sending computer data across the heavens not only hinges on compatible cellular links, it also has to embrace a whole new set of telecommunication religions, all of which can change according to the country you happen to be in at the time. At least four mobility standards - CDMA, GSM, TDMA and CDPD - exist in the western world and that's before you start taking into account the melting pot of operating systems and each country's indigenous phone network protocols.
But, as in the old Coca Cola advert, serious attempts are being made to teach the world to sing the same tune. All dealers have to do is stay in harmony.
But first the industry almost certainly needs to choose between two rival song sheets. Not surprisingly, Microsoft, having been initially left behind by the internet revolution, has no wish to repeat the same mistake now the mobile computer market is starting to blossom.
By comparison, Psion is storming ahead with its lean Epoc32 software which, backed by Ericsson, Nokia and Motorola, is at the heart of Symbian, a joint venture also targeted at the smartphone-cum-handheld sector.
'At the moment, it looks like Symbian is in a strong position to capture the demand for information receivers, while Microsoft could prove triumphant in the information integrator area with its CE operating system,' says Girling. 'So far, we've experienced little demand for CE devices, but I think we could be on the cusp of seeing the market take off very quickly.'
Ironically, that could leave Psion with its Series 5-type machines out in the cold, he predicts, unable to provide remote access to desktop PCs and too sophisticated for the information receiver market.
'Psion will really have to decide where it is positioning its palmtops, otherwise the devices will just fall down a hole in the middle,' Girling believes.
So will dealers involved in traditional laptops find next-generation devices making inroads into their own markets? 'Absolutely,' Girling states.
'In this industry, if you stand still you're hosed.'
David Wood, executive vice president of Symbian, takes the view that it's not just an issue of supporting one camp or the other. Moreover, he adds, the media's pitting of Microsoft-cum-Qualcomm against his own consortium is misleading.
'At Symbian, we're much more interested in getting a set of standards that people can agree and work together on,' Wood argues. 'Whenever there's a fragmentation of standards, the user loses out because they can't get hold of the best technology.'
Wood adds: 'It's hard to create a market for these devices and it requires so many companies to co-operate. It's far beyond the ability of any one firm to dominate. Microsoft might have tremendous knowledge about software, but it knows very little about the telecoms side of things. And although it might now have an alliance with Qualcomm, that company also has a history of doing things its own way and not co-operating.'
He says a case in point is Qualcomm's refusal to agree on standards for third-generation phone systems - a move that has dismayed even the US government. Wood also cites Microsoft's unwillingness to co-operate on wireless application protocol (Wap), which Symbian and others are pushing as the standard for small screens.
'Many companies are now very wary of working with Microsoft because of its habit of taking a technology - such as Java - and then turning it into something different which often ends up not being suitable for widespread, integrated use,' he explains.
But Dilip Mistry, product manager of Windows CE at Microsoft UK, refutes any suggestion that the software giant is out to put the backs up the rest of the industry. On the other hand, he doesn't dispute that the Microsoft and Qualcomm alliance is in competition with Symbian.
'Competition is healthy,' he says, 'but this market isn't yet clear in any sense. There's lots of new competitors and all we're trying to do is create a rich, end-to-end framework so that wireless devices can integrate with enterprise PCs. If anything, we're quite excited about competing with Symbian.'
But just before Christmas, in a move clearly aimed directly at Symbian, Microsoft revealed it is to offer mobile phone companies a free internet microbrowser. The W-Pack (wireless package application) software will include libraries, documentation and source code and will run on top of an embedded operating system. Although it is optimised for CE, the software's open standards architecture will allow the browser to run on any handset operating system.
Until now, Microsoft hasn't been able to match Epoc on price - between $5 and $10 per unit - without undermining its CE licencing base. But by giving away a microbrowser, Microsoft retains a strong foothold in the burgeoning market for not just phones, but pagers, PDAs, in-car PCs and countless other wireless devices that will soon be able to access corporate data from any spot on the globe.
Underpinning both strategies is a recognition that, as digital convergence brings the worlds of computers and telecoms together, there will be a fundamental shift in how people access corporate data - ushering in an era of mobile devices centred primarily on using the internet as the highway, but also involving satellites.
In the US, Qualcomm's CDMA mobile phone standard rivals GSM in Europe.
But the venture with Microsoft, known as Wireless Knowledge, is to create a seamless comms and software infrastructure, based around a network hub.
While Qualcomm will provide the know-how on linking the network to mobile phones and other remote devices, Microsoft will concentrate on building the software bridges to its existing applications, such as BackOffice Server and Windows 2000, running on NT.
The partnership between the two businesses comes at a key moment in the evolution of wireless technology, especially given the availability of advanced, low-orbit satellite networks such as Motorola's Iridium which, at the start of December, began the commercial launch of its global phone services.
The only other low-orbit service with a delivery schedule approaching Iridium's aggressiveness is Globalstar, in which Qualcomm is also a leading partner. Microsoft is involved in funding a similar venture. Teledesic is based on Russian satellite technology, but will take billions to get it off the ground. Motorola also has a quarter stake as prime engineering contractor.
So how exactly is Microsoft positioning itself in the mobile comms wars? According to Steve Ballmer, president of Microsoft, there is only one route to go. As he declared when the tie-up with Qualcomm was disclosed: 'If you ask us what we're up to, it's - in all cases - supporting internet protocol. At the end of the day, it means transmitting the greatest amount of information to the greatest number of people in the broadest possible way.'
With Microsoft dominating the desktop market and hoping to do much the same with the internet, it's what you would expect the company's president to say. But the Symbian consortium remains unfazed by the challenge posed by Microsoft's venture with Qualcomm and its latest free microbrowser ploy.
As Jan Ahrenbring, marketing director of Ericsson, puts it: 'We don't see anything new or exceptional in these developments and we are prepared for some hard competition.'
As part of its business plan, Symbian last month stated it was to license software from UK company STNC, which specialises in developing internet software able to run on devices with limited processing power.
This would be ideal for the up and coming range of handhelds, pagers and smartphones. Combined with Symbian's equally undemanding Epoc OS, it could soon herald the arrival of a whole raft of advanced handheld devices on the streets. These would be compatible with Windows - as Psion's software already is - and able to download data via the internet from corporate servers.
But where, in all this technological melee, are the opportunities for the channel, apart from the prospect of selling more mobile devices or perhaps even branching out into smartphones? The answer is probably in focusing on the corporate market, where customers would want to harness host databases with the brave new world of not just the internet, but anytime, anywhere access - to cite the Martini catchphrase.
Resellers involved in NT, for instance, should relish Microsoft's alliance with Qualcomm, opening up, as it does, the prospect of building centralised 'clearing houses' for corporate customers who want to transmit data to remote devices using internet protocols.
However, at the client end, other opportunities are starting to emerge.
Manufacturers of everything from pagers to smartphones, from personal organisers to even portable TVs, might all soon want to build internet capability into their devices. That will invariably mean either incorporating Symbian's Epoc operating system into their machines or utilising Microsoft's microbrowser.
And that will also mean more opportunities for integrating software.
Symbian, for example, has also revealed it is to provide STNC technologies as a standard part of Epoc and associated software development kits.
Any mobile device manufacturer opting for the Epoc operating system gets STNC's software development kit bundled for free. But that doesn't mean that Vars, for instance, can't get in on the act - the integration of Tom Thumb operating systems and browsers, for example, could just as easily be outsourced as handled in-house.
Aimee Mokady, marketing director of STNC, acknowledges that - with Symbian's backing - her company's software could just as easily end up incorporated in smartphones as palmtop PCs. But she believes that while STNC's Hitchhiker software will bring internet capability to mobile phones - giving users an extra menu option to download emails, diary or contact information - the phones themselves will remain primarily a voice medium.
'There is a market for products, such as the Nokia 9000, which is obviously more of a computer,' Mokady says. 'But the biggest market will be in smartphones.'
Nonetheless, she also believes that as the data side of the mobile phone market opens up, traditional PC dealers will be more at home with the medium than their purely telecom counterparts. As for the troublesome question of exactly how the advanced devices - be they called PCs or phones - are marketed, Mokady argues that the manufacturers have got to get their heads around the problem.
'So far, the smartphone manufacturers have tried to sell these devices as phones and that hasn't been successful,' she adds. 'Maybe they'll now start selling them more as palmtop computers - which obviously would be good news for the PC channel.'
But what about the traditional vendors of mobile PCs, the Toshiba and Compaq dealers of this world? Will they be left behind as the industry heads towards pocket-sized devices, much in the same way that the old portable PCs, the so-called 'luggables', are now just a distant memory?
The answer is no - probably. Laptops and notebooks are still much in demand, if only because of their versatility as sales presentation tools, for instance. There is also the Bluetooth initiative, as supported by organisations such as Intel, Nokia, Ericsson and Toshiba. This is widely seen as the future for integrating phone and mobile PCs alike, using wireless frequencies instead of infra-red technology to exchange data quickly between devices.
Unlike infra-red, which requires so called 'line of sight' contact to swap data, wireless frequencies can operate much more freely. It means that, say, a salesman could use his mobile phone in tandem with a laptop to receive incoming Powerpoint files or diary messages, without the devices having to be lined up, eyeball to eyeball.
Con Mallon, marketing manager at Toshiba, claims that Bluetooth alone could give the mobile comms market a significant shot in the arm, with fresh products on the market towards the end of this year. As for the trend towards miniaturisation, he sees little evidence so far of the next breed of smartphones and handhelds making inroads on traditional laptops.
Mallon says about 800,000 notebooks are selling in the UK each year, with Toshiba boasting at least a third of the market. 'As we go into the millennium, sales are starting to drop off,' he admits. 'But otherwise, the notebook sector has good growth in it, especially as they become thinner and lighter.
'Windows CE handheld devices have arrived, but they haven't exactly set the world on fire. Notebooks will continue to dominate for some time yet,' he adds. 'Customers want full Windows 95 or 98 capability - cut-down versions of the OS are of little use to them.'
Inspector Gadget and his talking cuff links might think otherwise, but only time will tell.
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