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Sony, Apple make phone dream team

... but 'iPhone' unlikely

Speculation that Apple is planning to launch a smartphone has been revived by John Markoff in the New York Times.

This isn't what we're hearing at all - but it hasn't stopped analysts taking the Rorschasch blot test and drawing some wild conclusions:

'"When you connect the dots, you end up at a phone," said Charles Wolf, a financial analyst who follows Apple for Needham & Company'", records the Times.

No, the future points to close collaboration between SonyEricsson and Apple, with a slim outside chance of Apple rebadging one particular SonyEricsson device. But we'll explain how we arrive at this conclusion.

Sliced and diced

The business basis behind the speculation is sound - Jobs himself sees the standalone PDA being subsumed into the phone. And recent tectonic shifts in the handset business have made the business much more open.

Firstly the biggest handset companies agreed to base future smartphones on a common OS, drawn from Psion. They haven't all put their eggs in this basket, with Nokia the keenest on this Symbian platform, but it's increasing in significance. Last year saw Motorola, Ericsson and others license their radio stacks to third parties, and the three prime hardware platforms for smartphones - leader Texas Instruments (with its OMAP) and wannabees Motorola and Intel license radio stacks with their hardware. And finally, Nokia, in a dramatic move which redefined the Finnish giant as a "software company", has licensed user interfaces and other goodies, signing Siemens and Matsushita for its Series 60 UI. Meanwhile Motorola has licensed the Symbian UIQ "Thin Quartz" user interface, honed by SonyEricsson, for its 3G phone.

All this means that entering the market is much easier than a decade ago, when Apple's Newton project drained the company of billions of dollars of R&D. But does this make it a white box PC business? Of course not: integrating all these pieces and testing a device to pass regulatory tests is far from trivial, as we explained here: see the second half of
Wintel - the next generation's horoscope.

Eye candy

In any case, why would Apple need to market its own device, when a device, bearing all the hallmarks of the best Apple and Sony product design and innovation, is waiting in the wings? We refer to the SonyEricsson P800, which struck us with its Aquaesque eye candy (that's Thin Quartz). (See our hands-on here and screenshots here).

Jobs recently invited SonyEricsson's chairman to demonstrate the device at MacWorld Expo, and at the WorldWide Developer Conference disclosed that Apple had introduced a new common address book format specifically to make it easier to communicate with PDAs and smartphones.

Word from SonyEricsson is that the admiration is reciprocated, and that the handset manufacturer sees Apple compatibility as a high priority. Recent hardware prototypes for the device - which is due in Q3 in Europe and Q4 in the United States, suggest the project is coming along nicely. We were able to exchange files via Bluetooth and play MPEG4 video recorded on the Nokia on the SonyEricsson.

Apple's strategy is as a "hub", and it will only make clients where it can benefit the Mac strategically, such as the iPod: where there's no similar product on the market, and where the design costs aren't too high. Neither of these factors suggests Apple will become a handset manufacturer any day soon.

Of the three scenarios on offer: Apple starts from scratch licensing and integrating the components; Apple co-operates with SonyEricsson and other vendors; Apple tweaks and refits an existing model, such as the P800, the second looks the most likely. Promoting compatibility with the growing number of Symbian smartphones would mean that Apple would make partners, not competitors, out of Nokia and Motorola - and that would surely be biting off more than it would want to chew. ®

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