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We're being spanked by Nokia – Gates

Making a Stink

Nokia is creaming Microsoft in the phone business, Bill Gates said yesterday. Gates admitted the company is "way, way, way behind Nokia", according to a Financial Times report.

Three "ways" is significant - because Bill's "way"-scale is logarithmic (not a lot of people know that) - and the comment punctures the publicity bubble which accompanied the launch of the Windows-based Orange Smartphone this week.

Gates vowed that Microsoft will catch up, denying that the company will scale back development efforts. Three years ago, a ballistic Bill identified the phone consortium Symbian as enemy number one and this year singled out Nokia for particular attention. Nokia itself has prepared for the arrival of The Beast by licensing UIs and stacks, and describing itself as a software and services company.

Combined data/voice devices have been a long time coming, and each of the rival camps has had its share of problems. Palm lost the confidence of two of its handset partners Nokia and Motorola, which each canned projects, although new devices from Samsung and Kyocera should help restore its fortunes. Symbian has encountered many delays, and dropped its model of prescriptive reference designs (DFRDs) for a more flexible "a la carte" menu for licensees - ironically ditching the model devised for it by Juha Christensen, who Microsoft later poached. Symbian dramatically lost its head earlier this year.

Stink or Swim

But Microsoft's problems have been legion. A joint venture with Ericsson hit the dust, and it has failed to woo a major licensee with the exception of Samsung, which has a foot in all three camps. (Or four camps, if you include Java-enabled phones running manufacturers' closed operating systems, which is the happiest camp of all right now). The phone group has been reorganized so many times that the org chart must surely be assembled out of fridge magnets.

Early voice-enabled devices exhibited some cute bugs. In one case, the phone would lock on receiving an incoming call from a caller with whose name begins with a letter at the wrong end of the alphabet. The software would begin to traverse the phone book, so it could display the Called ID, and then lock by the time it got the Vs and Ws.

This was a terrific boon to say, Polish users with many friends or relatives whose names begin with "V" and "W", and who wanted to be left alone - but of little use to anyone else.

The delays were inherited by the dedicated Stinger platform saw it christened "Stinker" - one Stinker has been delayed four times - and Microsoft has resorted to designing the phones itself and using contract manufacturers in Asia.

(Microsoft hates the "Stinker" moniker so much, that it's rebranded Stinker as "Canary" - perhaps unaware of the bird's history as a sacrificial and disposable early warning system for miners. When the Canary dies - you clear out fast).

That Microsoft's technology deficit should be so publicly acknowledged affirms that it longs to catch up: it doesn't usually publicize tactical withdrawals until long after the fact. Some years after that, it will include the failure in a witty Comdex video.

Feature creep

But right now, it has slim pickings. Juha Christensen described one of the "must have" features which differentiate Smartphone 2002 as "Caller ID". So notoriously unreliable have Stinker prototypes become, that it's shipping them to friendly journalists without SIM cards.

ZDNet columnist David Coursey, in a piece entitled New Microsoft cell phone: Why I just love it! , doesn't seem to have used it to make a call, or send a message - but he gives it a rave nonetheless.

"The Orange Smartphone exceeds the capabilities of the current generation of top-of-the-line handsets, including Siemens S55, Sony Ericsson T68i, and the Symbian-powered Nokia 7650," writes Coursey. "Comparing a Smartphone to the rest of what's out there is depressing if you're determined to not buy Microsoft."

Comparing feature lists is always tricky, so you decide. Smartphone 2002 has expandability - an SD card slot - and a web browser. The Nokia 9290 series - which if Coursey has seen, he has chosen not to review - is more expensive, and doesn't do "always on" packet data, a significant drawback. But it does have a full web browser (Opera), RealOne and Macomedia Flash players, and it too is expandable.

The Nokia 7650 has an integrated camera and Bluetooth: both major features lacking in Smartphone 2002. I wouldn't call the inclusion of these "depressing", but perhaps David's working on some reverse-functionality metric, where fewer features are better. I don't know - but that's the only logical conclusion.

We hope this doesn't tone down Coursey's rhetoric. Columnists are under no obligation to be objective.

But it is a funny old world when Bill Gates says his phones are "way, way, way" behind, and a ZDNet anchor insists they're way, way, way ahead.

Oops. ®

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