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Still many questions about software for mobile computers

Open mobile networks are a step in the right direction, but mobile operating system developers have just as much work ahead of them as wireless carriers.

PALO ALTO, Calif.The great thing about the development of future mobile computers is that no one school of thought has come to dominate the territory. Of course, that's also a problem.

A group of panelists from the world's leading mobile operating system developers, including representatives from Symbian, Microsoft, MontaVista, and newcomer Google, perused a wide number of topics Tuesday afternoon at the Palo Alto Research Center, birthplace of so many technologies that changed the world. The panel, which also included executives from Nokia and Research in Motion, would like to do the same, but the hard and exciting part of this industry is the fact that nobody is exactly sure how to get there.

Do operating system vendors try to make wide-open devices that can run anything, or clamp down on the number and types of applications to make more reliable and secure devices? Do they press the limits of a cell phone at the cost of performance, or do they acquiesce to those constraints with stripped-down applications and Web pages that work, but aren't as meaningful? Should they find ways to go around carriers that are reluctant to give up control of the devices that run on their networks, or work with the carriers to find ways of helping them make money? Anybody who says they know for sure is lying.

"We are discovering mobile operating systems for the first time," said Victor Brilion, convergence product manager at Nokia. "Go back to how people discovered computers for the first time. (The main question is), 'how do you use them?'"

Even though there are more than a billion mobile phones sold every year, the actual amount of data usage is very low, said Alan Brenner, senior vice president for RIM's Blackberry platform. That means most people don't really have any idea what they can do with sophisticated mobile phones, although there are signs that that is starting to change.

So developers like Microsoft are sort of feeling their way through this market. Some people want business applications, while others want something fun, and within each of those groups, there's different preferences for QWERTY-style keyboards versus the traditional phone keyboard, screen size, and countless variables, said Gerardo Dada, director of mobile operators and OEMs for Microsoft.

By contrast, the PC evolved with a dominant operating system and two basic form factors: the desktop and the notebook. This made it much easier for software developers to figure out how their applications should run, how Web developers should make their Web pages look, and they had the added bonus of knowing they had almost unlimited amounts of power and memory at their disposal. That's not the case here.

"We cannot think about what's going to happen about what's going to happen with mobile applications just by looking at what happened on the desktop," Brenner said.

And there's one main reason why: the wireless carriers control this industry. Put aside Verizon's decision to open up their network to different devices and applications: they are still going to control the experience for most of their customers. And these are conservative folks who want to make sure they get a return on their investment into building huge networks while making sure those networks are reliable and secure. Taking chances on new applications and usage models makes that harder.

"One of the issues is the confused ecosystem around the handset," said Rich Miner, group manager of mobile platforms for Google. "The whole ecosystem of what bits go on the handset is controlled by the handset manufacturers and the carriers." Google, of course, hopes to change that with its Open Handset Alliance and the Android software, which would ensure that applications written for Android could work across a wide variety of networks and phones.

Without a carrier representative on the panel to defend the industry, perhaps it's natural that it fell in for criticism. But it's clear that the mobile vendors feel the carriers are holding them back, and it's hard to tell your customers that they are screwing up the development of an industry, Brillion said.

I've been to several panels about the future of smartphones and mobile computers during the last several months, and the carriers always seem to be the whipping boy for the fact that for all the hype, truly mobile computing is still a ways off. Perhaps that will start to change if open networks really happen, which is far from clear today despite Verizon's announcement.

But the developers themselves realize they still have a lot of work to do. "There's a lot we don't know yet about how to manage applications, and don't want to over rotate in terms of imposing control," Brenner said.

And the nice thing is that this time around, there's lots of companies with their eyes trained on the problem. "A little diversity is a good thing," Brenner said, as he looked across a panel of executives who would love to put him out of business.