Mobile war smoulders around internet UI

Casualties expected as race hots up

Most of the analysis of the handset war between Nokia and Motorola centers on their device designs, with Nokia’s stainless steel 8800 squaring up against the US company’s RAZR and PEBL. Just as important to the user’s choice, however, is the user interface and, increasingly the ease of use of internet capabilities, and this week we saw the giants focusing their attentions on the software side of the battle.

Nokia has always had the upper hand in the user interface world, with its Series xO UI platform, which it is trying to establish as a de facto standard. By contrast, Motorola has been known for over complicated, over technical UIs, a failing it now claims it is addressing with a new interface geared to multifunction devices that send email, play music and surf the internet. Doug Walston, head of the UI design team, admits that the current Synergy interface was not designed for multimedia, and became cumbersome as more and more functionality was tacked on to a basic platform devised for simple voice devices.

Now Motorola is bringing out a new UI that springs from its more general transition to an open Java/Linux environment for its key models. It supports over 600 functions from playing an MP3 file to composing a text message, and sets out what the company calls ‘golden paths’ – intuitive routes through all the functions, using single buttons and softkeys – for navigation.

The new UI will ship in Java/Linux handsets by the end of the year, including several key advances. For instance, on the communications side, there is a ‘universal composer’ that simplifies messaging by deciding automatically, from the content, which type of message to use – SMS, MMS and so on. This is just one example of removing the need for end users to make technical choices. The UI also includes speaker independent voice recognition technology developed within Motorola’s research labs.

On the multimedia side, there is a new download manager that enables users to continue to navigate the UI while the phone is downloading a file in the background. Another interesting development is Motorola’s Screen3 technology, which adds internet information to a phone’s main screen and regularly updates that information. For instance, a user only has to look at the main screen to get the latest local weather information.

For its part, Nokia has recently been broadening the reach of its own Java-oriented platform, Series 60, to embrace Linux, partly through its open source browser development with Apple. Like Motorola, it is also committing resources to making the mobile internet experience more direct and simple. This week it introduced a mobile search solution that provides users with fast access to leading search engines directly from the Nokia handset. The main service and content providers supported include Medio Systems, Yahoo!,, as well as digital map solution provider AtlasCT and digital map data provider NAVTEQ. When the user is travelling, the interface adapts automatically to local search engines, and location awareness can be incorporated too. The software will be available first in Finland, Sweden and the UK later this year.

Opera and Openwave

All these efforts by the majors will put heavy pressure on the specialists in mobile browsing, notably Openwave and Opera. Openwave has now shipped its mobile browser in 1bn handsets worldwide and has licensing deals with some majors, such as Siemens and Sanyo, although its main appeal, like many other software independents, is to operators seeking to customize their own UIs rather than adopting the handset vendors’ approaches.

Meanwhile, Opera, whose software is licensed by Nokia but may be sidelined by the Apple deal, has launched a version of its browser, Opera Mini, for low end Java phones that would not normally be able to run such software. Instead of requiring the phone to process web pages, it uses a remote server to pre-process the page before sending it to the device. The handset only needs a small Java client.

The first company to adopt Opera Mini is Norway's leading commercial television station, TV2, which has bundled the product with its mobile services in Norway to offer its viewers a complete content package that includes the browsing function.

This ability to customize a user interface to reflect the services and brand of an operator will become ever more important as highly branded and targeted virtual network operators become more prevalent, leasing capacity on a cellco’s system to deliver a service that is usually tailored tightly for a selected user base.

America Online, which is creeping slowly into wireless and mobile markets, has recognized this and has acquired mobile software house Wildseed to help it replicate its AOL internet environment on the handset. It could use an AOL phone platform in various ways – marketing it directly to end users or via their operators in return for a revenue share; becoming an MVNO itself with its own branded environment; or offering a cellphone option as a bundle with its conventional ISP services, whether wireline or broadband wireless, so that the user can access the same functions and interface from the PC, television or the handset.

The purchase of Wildseed is a first step towards this potential, although AOL is moving far more slowly into wireless than its nearest challenger in the US ISP market, EarthLink, which has a joint venture with South Korea Telecom that will offer MVNO cellular and broadband wireless services, and which is also targeting municipal metrozone projects. Wildseed targets the youth market with intelligent faceplates that allow consumers to change both the look and user interface of their handsets. The technology features pre-loaded content including games and screen savers and AOL will extend this into a platform for branded instant and photo messaging and for delivering its internet music service to mobile devices.

"Data-related mobile technologies are on the cusp of mainstream adoption," said John McKinley, president of digital services for AOL. "The wireless industry is focused on bringing additional rich media experiences and a new generation of interactive services to the mobile consumer, and we are committed to being a leader in that arena."

Copyright © 2005, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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