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The mobile future is wide open

There's no clear answer to what will result as the PC and mobile phone industries converge in the middle. And in many ways, that's fantastic, according to a panel of mobile executives.

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--If you're not exactly sure what you want in a mobile computer, don't worry: the folks who are building them aren't entirely sure themselves.

The consensus among five panelists gathered here at the ARM Developers Conference was that this is a very interesting and confusing time to be thinking about the future of mobile computing, because the playing field is so wide open and because consumers haven't decided exactly what they want.

"It's sort of like Darwin," said Tony Milbourn, director of mobile devices at Motorola. "We don't know what people want, we put them out there and see what people will buy."

This is about the quest for the next big mobile computer, something more attractive than a UMPC but more powerful than a Treo. It's been a very common topic of late, with the craziness attached to anything related to Apple's iPhone and Intel's clear goal of throwing its hat into the mobile computer race.

The iPhone is very much on everyone's mind (at ARM's press conference earlier in the day, executives from about six different companies had a picture of the iPhone in their presentations), but more will be needed if regular people are going to embrace true handheld mobile computing.

There's three technologies that must evolve for this to happen. Motorola's Milbourn thinks that bandwidth speeds have to improve to allow mobile applications to flourish. Other panelists, such as Jorgen Behrens of Symbian and John Lilly of the Mozilla Foundation thought it was all about applications and the user interface. And obviously, the hardware is going to have to deliver sufficient performance at battery-friendly power levels.

"The operating system is very important, but it's mostly important for the people making the devices," said Behrens, executive vice president of marketing for Symbian. The combination of the browser and the user interface dictate whether or not people will enjoy their experience, he said.

That suited Lilly just fine. The chief operating officer of the Firefox development organization thinks that the browsing experience is going to be extremely important for mobile computers, especially as people rely more and more on Web-based applications, like Facebook, Google and countless others. The problem is that right now, the memory footprint needed for an advanced browser to support those Web applications is way too large. Mozilla is working on a solution to that problem, and this reliance on Web applications could make the debate over third-party applications on the iPhone moot, he said.

Web applications also bypass the problem of operating system fragmentation in this world, according to several panelists. One reason (among others) that Microsoft came to dominate the market for PC operating system was the need to have a common platform for applications in a non-networked world, Milbourn said. But this industry is evolving in a very different way.

"There's an extraordinary awareness of not handing Microsoft the keys to another kingdom," said Jim Ready, CEO of MontaVista, which earlier in the day signed a collaboration deal with five other ARM licensees to work on Linux products for this category. "(The fragmentation) may indirectly benefit Microsoft if you think you need a real common platform with a lot of applications. But if you're on the Internet, the local platform isn't as common."

Despite Intel and Microsoft's interest in future mobile computers, don't expect the scenario that played out more than 20 years ago to happen again. "This is not going to be the PC market," said Mike Muller, CTO of ARM. "There is going to be diversity and I don't think there's going to be one product or one winner."