The Battle Today for What You Can Do on Your Phone Tomorrow

March 6, 2008 at 3:45 am (technology) (, )

There are a couple of announcements Tuesday that point to a major technological battle: the race to become the platform for mobile applications. This is happening at two levels. There are mobile operating systems like Symbian, Windows Mobile, Apple’s mobile version of OS X and Google’s forthcoming Android. And there are environments that live above the operating system that are meant to allow applications to run on multiple operating systems.

Sun’s Java is the leader in this area now. Adobe’s Flash Lite is a contender. Microsoft said Tuesday that that it was developing a mobile version of Silverlight (its answer to Flash). And Google is creating a mobile version of Google Gears, its software that lets online applications work when they are not connected to the Internet.

For these companies, there is potentially real money at stake. With 1 billion phones made each year, even a tiny licensing fee for software on each one can add up. And there is also money to be made selling development software as well.

For consumers, the stakes are much higher. This jostling will determine what your mobile phone will be able to do, and who will control it. These rich environments have the potential to offer capabilities that bypass the control of the carriers who want to charge fees for features that might otherwise be free. See our discussion of how Verizon blocks Google’s mobile mapping software from getting data from the GPS system built into some phones.

Apple, so far, is limiting the iPhone to applications that can be run on its Safari browser and that use its own development environment, which will be introduced Thursday. It does not support Flash, which is how most free online video is published. The effect of this is to drive people who want video on the iPhone to use Apple’s iTunes store to buy it. (UPDATE: The iPhone does link to lots of YouTube video and other video in Apple’s Quicktime format, there is a great deal of video, especially from professional sources, only in Flash that it can’t play.)

Microsoft’s Silverlight, which is just emerging in the market, is meant to allow for a variety of online applications, but it has particularly deep capabilities for video. Nokia said Tuesday that it would include Silverlight on its high-end S60 smart phones that use Symbian and on its midrange Series 40 phones. This is, of course, a big win for Microsoft, as Nokia is the world’s top cellphone maker. But it is not an exclusive deal: Adobe’s Flash Lite also works on many of these Nokia handsets.

An interesting test of the market will be to see how Microsoft treats Windows Mobile, which is second to Symbian in the market for smartphone operating systems. Right now, there are versions of Flash Lite that ship on many Windows Mobile phones. (The carriers have a say in what actually goes on many phones.) Will Microsoft make it harder for Adobe to support Windows Mobile once its Silverlight is available for that platform later this year?

The news from Google Tuesday is much smaller, but still intriguing. It is software that is meant to support applications that run on mobile browsers, initially Internet Explorer running on Windows Mobile. Google Gears was initially introduced for general Web browsing. It lets you load crucial pieces of online applications onto your computer, so you can use them when you are not connected. Google’s first use of this for its own services was a version of its Google Reader newsreading site that can load a bunch of articles so users can read them on an airplane or anywhere else.

Now Google will offer the same for mobile devices. So uses of the Zoho office-in-a browser package on their cellphones will be able to read their documents when they are not connected. Microsoft, never one to leave a feature uncopied, says it will develop a system to use Silverlight when offline. (On computers, offline use has been a major thrust of Adobe, which is promulgating its AIR system as a superset of Flash.)

If you are not a programmer or wireless executive, I don’t blame you if all this makes your head spin. But the impact of how this shakes out will be important, and not just for mobile phones. The same environments that drive phones are likely to also power interactive features on television sets and all sorts of other devices. The Chumby, for example, is meant to replace a clock radio, and it delivers application written in Flash Lite.

We can all get behind the idea of software environments that will let us do what we want, on any device we want, without asking anyone’s permission.

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