New smartphones this week from Nokia-Microsoft and Motorola-Verizon Wireless-Google, with Apple's iPhone expected next week, shed light on how mobility is evolving for enterprise IT groups.
The focus has been less on hardware razzle-dazzle and more on what the phones can do as mobile computers.
First look: Nokia's new Windows Phone 8 smartphones
First look: Motorola's new Droid RAZR lineup
The new Motorola Droid Razr models will support the latest version of the Android OS, Jellybean, when they ship later this year. And, for the first time, include Google's Chrome Web browser as the phone's standard. Nokia's new Lumia models, running the not-yet-released Windows Phone 8 OS, feature new levels of integration with the Nokia Location Services, now built into Window Phone, and new apps, like the augmented reality browsing in Nokia City Lens, to exploit these services.
Most of the new phones support 4G/LTE cellular connectivity (with a fall-back to 3G), providing a much bigger, always available, wireless data pipe at least for those subscribers who want it. And enterprises can expect that pipe, as well as 802.11n Wi-Fi links, to be used for high definition imagery and video transfers. Diagonal screen sizes range from 4.3 to 4.7 inches. All of them feature "only" dual-core processors rather than the quad-core chips found in a few high-end phones, an acknowledgement of the complex tradeoffs that good mobile device design requires.
The most notable hardware feature in the new Motorola phones is the much longer battery life, says Michael Morgan, senior analyst, mobile devices, for ABI Research. But the greater significance lies in how these mobile devices from Motorola Mobility, acquired by Google last year, fit into the growing constellation of Google services. "Motorola will be the vehicle that is used to ensure that there are Android devices on the market that leverage Google services, such as maps and email," Morgan says.
Steve Patterson, writing Network World's PhilAndroid blog, argues the new Motorola phones are "customer acquisition platforms that attract and engage consumers with the un-tethered mobile capability to run data-intensive applications like Google Maps, Facebook, YouTube and Skype in the way they would ordinarily run only on PCs or on Wi-Fi-connected mobile devices."
"This mobile platform consisting of data-intensive applications, compelling preloaded Google apps, fast un-tethered browsing and long battery life is game changing because it captures customers and increases the amount of mobile data intensive application time displaced from PCs (including Macs)," he writes.
Nokia did emphasize hardware features to differentiate its second-generation Lumia phones: new display technology that minimizes motion blurring and boosts brightness in sunlight, wireless recharging based on the Qi standard; and on the higher-end phone, a greatly improved camera and more powerful battery. But what makes the camera effective is the way it leverages both new editing features in Windows Phone 8, along with new third-party apps, and the accompanying free 7GB storage account on Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud storage service.
Nokia is currently the leading Windows Phone vendor in the U.S., but that's not actually saying much, as one analyst notes. "Despite recent gains, Windows Phone is not yet performing to Ovum's expectations," says Tony Cripps, principal analyst, devices and platforms, Ovum, a technology market research firm.
Cripps has a novel thesis about why. "This is, at least, partially as a consequence of the strength of the opposition [iOS and Android], but partly, we think, as a deliberate move by Microsoft and its hardware partners to avoid flooding the market too quickly with the platform before they are in a position to play up its synergies with other Microsoft products, especially Windows 8 for PCs and tablets [due out this fall], and its business applications," he says. "The clear benefits to businesses from the ready integration possible across Microsoft's products set will set a benchmark for BYOD strategies focused on out-of-box device capabilities once Microsoft's full range of new platforms is available."
Integration and synergy But what this integration will entail, or what synergies it will achieve (or at least promise), and in what time frame, all remain mysterious in light of Microsoft's continuing silence about its priorities for the mobile enterprise.
Ovum's chief telecoms analysts, Jan Dawson, argues that by extending the distinctive, "Metro" user interface of Windows Phone into Windows 8 on tablets and notebooks, Microsoft paradoxically will make Windows Phone more familiar to a much larger audience. Another synergy is the now-shared kernel in Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. That means "developers can develop for PCs, tablets and smartphones in a unified way, which should help developers get on board with Windows Phone, and that in turn should make the platform more attractive," Dawson says.
That's a view echoed in a blogpost by VentureBeat's Devindra Hardawar, who argues that with the advent of Windows 8, Windows Phone "will no longer feel like an outlier among Microsoft's products. Windows 8 finally wraps up everything Microsoft is doing - desktops, smartphones, tablets, and even the Xbox's new interface into one cohesive computing experience."
Windows 8 is what will "truly differentiate Windows Phone for the upcoming year," he says. "That's important, because the [mobile] platform has suffered from being only slightly more convenient and prettier than its competitors. If Microsoft can market Windows Phone 8 as an extension of Windows 8, it could finally make consumers pay attention."
As Hardawar points out, that's not something that Google or even Apple, which has been importing the look and feel of iOS into its desktop/notebook Mac operating system, can offer, or at least offer in quite the same way.
The new phones show that mobile devices are less like personal computers and more like personalized service endpoints that smoothly and efficiently interconnect with a growing range of back-end services, either on the Web, in various clouds, or behind the firewall of the enterprise.
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.
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