Mobile computing becomes battlefield of technology

THERE'S a world title fight going on between the technological heavyweights of the BlackBerry and the iPhone. Which one stands to win, asks The Times technology editor Nigel Kendall.

THERE'S a world title fight going on between the technological heavyweights of the BlackBerry and the iPhone. Which one stands to win, asks The Times technology editor Nigel Kendall.

From Betamax to HD-DVD, the battlefield of technology is strewn with the corpses of great ideas that fought bravely but ultimately succumbed to public taste.

Only occasionally is an uneasy truce declared. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates fought it out in the late 1980s as Apple and Microsoft went head to head in desktop computing, but 20 years on peace has largely broken out between the two, except ...

Except in the field of mobile computing. And, make no mistake, that is what the smartphone battle really is. The devices on which we increasingly rely to track our e-mails, appointments and phone calls commonly have more power on board than a desktop computer from less than a decade ago.

The problem is that, just as in the early days of computing, there are a host of different operating systems for mobile devices, each incompatible with the others.

Among the established systems, Apple iPhone OS, BlackBerry OS, Microsoft Windows Mobile and Symbian (used by Nokia) are all vying for our hearts and cash, and nowhere is there more cash to be made than in the business market.

Here BlackBerry has dominated. Its handheld devices offer near-perfect secure synchronisation with work e-mail, and QWERTY keyboards for ease of typing.

The problem is, its devices are not cute. Cue Apple. Last year's iPhone update brought Microsoft Exchange integration (the de facto standard for business data), and its devices are gorgeous enough to melt even a banker's heart: Standard Chartered, the British-based international bank, announced this week that it will allow thousands of employees to trade in their BlackBerrys for iPhones.

Should BlackBerry be worried? After all, it still controls 63percent of the market for business phones.

Well, yes. Standard Chartered has stated that the iPhone's huge software library swung the decision, but it was also no doubt responding to internal requests from bankers who had acquired an iPhone for personal use and loved it. This is something new.

Until recently high-end technology bled down from the big companies that could afford it. Now the roles have been reversed.

Affordable netbooks, smartphones and tablet computers have made nimble consumers of us all.

"This is a totally new phenomenon," a long-time technology observer said recently.

"Employees are telling their companies what to do."

So is the future Apple-shaped? If only it were that simple. Enter Google, pursued by a bee in its bonnet.

The Internet search giant's Android mobile operating system, provided free to manufacturers, integrates with all Google's online services, and with Microsoft Exchange. HTC, Motorola, Sony Ericsson and Samsung already make phones running Android, which offers comparable functionality in a similarly friendly package to the iPhone.

Last month, after only a year on sale, Android phones outsold iPhones for the first time in the US.

Industry experts believe that in five years' time Android will be the world's dominant mobile platform, just as Google dominates Internet search.

Perhaps, finally, someone has found the perfect recipe to make BlackBerry and Apple crumble. - The Times

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