Mobile computing moves beyond the smartphone

Mobile devices are becoming more dissimilar -- a marked contrast to what happened with PCs. Is that good or bad?

If you talk about mobile these days, the conversation almost always turns -- without anyone really thinking about it -- to smartphones. For many, smartphones have become the end-all and be-all of mobile devices. I didn't realize how common that switch has become until recently, when I had a conversation with Ari Virtanen, executive VP of wireless solutions at EB, a Finnish embedded systems company that designs and builds wireless infrastructure and devices.

Virtanen pointed out that in the United States, people think of smartphones -- iPhones and BlackBerrys -- when they think of mobile. That's not the case in his native Scandinavia, where so-called mobile Internet devices from Nokia and others are more common. They don't have phones, but instead are designed to work with information and applications.

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What triggered his comment was my asking him about the fractured nature of Google Android and the potential fissures introduced by the forthcoming MeeGo operating system that will merge Intel's Moblin and Nokia's Maemo (the successor to Symbian). He had mentioned that some schisms made sense given the variety of devices that could be created, including smartbooks, "smart" PDAs (like the Apple iPod Touch), tablets (like the Apple iPad and Nokia N800 series), and devices yet to be invented.

A world with a variety of mobile devices can benefit from the "let a thousand flowers bloom" culture of open source (which includes both Android and MeeGo), Virtnanen says. Yes, he concedes, the open source way can be chaotic and lead to so much fragmentation that a focused alternative -- that is, a platform directed by a single entity in a forceful, compelling way -- but that result is not a foregone conclusion.

Virtanen's point has stayed with me, and I was reminded of it last week when I saw that Microsoft has decided to forgo copy and paste in its forthcoming Windows Phone 7 OS. What's the connection? One thing I like about Windows Phone 7, based on a short hands-on look at a very early version, is that it's taking a very specific approach in its OS and UI. Instead of following the standard set by the iPhone, Windows Phone 7 is about monitoring the important activities, people, and tasks in your life.

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