A future that's Windows-free

Good news for European mobile users: Microsoft may yet be squeezed out of a monopoly position
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The Independent Culture
BILL GATES recently went on record to state that Microsoft's new rival is not Netscape or the network computer, but Psion and Palm Pilot, both happily enlarging their customer bases without his beloved Windows. Apparently, Bill is also worried about Symbian, the mobile communication alliance between Psion, Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola, which has also taken an anti-Windows stand.

However, as I recently discovered, he has nothing to worry about. My new Nokia 6150 has no intention of speaking to the Psion, despite the fact that both manufacturers are the founders of Symbian. I expected that an inter-Symbian (read Nokia to Psion) link-up would be a simple procedure, achievable via a normal serial cable. Sadly, nothing is simple in the world of mobile alliances, and despite Symbian's anti-Gates campaign, Nokia is still sucking up to Microsoft. The evidence is all there in the fact that you can hook up to any Windows CE hand-held device in a fairly straightforward manner, but for Psion you have to spend a couple of hundred pounds on special kit.

So is it going to be yet another easy victory, with Microsoft winning the mobile operating system game to the detriment of consumer choice? Despite the bias that Nokia seems to be displaying towards CE, I think this time Bill will find it much harder going. The momentum behind the anti-Windows forces in the mobile communication market is growing, and Microsoft's recent announcement of a sudden love affair with BT smacks of desperation. BT, despite it's gargantuan size, is only a tiny player in the mobile market, through a stake in Cellnet. Its endorsement is not as important as decisions that will be taken by the Orange and Vodaphone networks. Those two are doing their own deals on operating systems, ignoring BT and Microsoft.

Microsoft has also been losing the battle over standards in Europe, as its proposal for a new generation of mobile protocol standards has been rejected by the European Union in favour of the next-generation GSM solution, developed by European manufacturers. This is good news for European mobile users. The patchy, incompatible mobile platforms in the US are a constant source of frustration for travellers used to GSM phones working in London as well as Rome or Warsaw.

As a heavy mobile user and frequent traveller to the Continent, I hope that the Europeans will stick to their guns. GSM is the only standard that specifies the complete network architecture, not just the radio access or air interface. Thanks to this transparency, today we have a multi-vendor, truly competitive market environment and seamless services to end users.

The announcement last week of the formation of an IP and Access Solutions unit by Nokia means that the Scandinavians are serious about competing with Microsoft, despite occasional pro-Microsoft biases in their products (see my own Nokia adventures with Psion). Between Martin Bangemann, the European Commissioner for Telecoms and IT, Bluetooth (an open specification for wireless communications), non-Windows devices like Palm Pilot or Psion and Nokia with Symbian, there are enough players to squeeze Microsoft out of a monopoly position.

Meanwhile, stick to using your laptop as a mobile connectivity device, use the Palm Pilot to check your hairstyle rather than picking up e-mail and hold out for a better, seamless, Windows-free mobile future.

Send your views on mobile connectivity to eva@never.com

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