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Movements in Mobile Web

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Last week was saw a number of significant changes in the mobile ecosystem. First, Google bought Motorola Mobility, leading to questions on whether Android would continue to be developed in an open manner, and then HP pulled the TouchPad at the end of last week. Where does this leave mobile devices?

Google's purchase of Motorola seemed more to do with the block of patents, rather than specific hardware manufacturing ability. Once a global leader in the mobile and telecommunications industry, Motorola had created some innovative products (such as the RAZR) and at one point commanded some important agreements (such as ROKR's ability to sync with iTunes). However, the RAZR line – once designed to be a top-end phone, but subsequently retargeted as a mass product – represented the last innovation to come out of the Motorola design house.

One of the main problems in the mid 2000s was the calamity that became the Symbian operating system. Once the poster-child of high-end phones like Sony Ericsson's P800 and P900 ranges, ongoing differentiation between the Symbian players (particularly for UIQ) between Nokia, Sony and Motorola caused more problems than they solved. In the end, Motorola abandoned Symbian with 3000 job cuts shortly after the iPhone was launched, to focus on the Android operating system. However, Motorola never regained its market share and was looking to sell its handset division at the time as well – though it would be three years later before Google finally bought it.

HP's TouchPad fiasco started when it received lacklustre reviews. Many had hoped to see a rebirth of Palm, the once famous name created from ex-Newton designers, after HP's purchase in order to get into the mobile segment. To do this, they created the WebOS platform, based on open standards such as HTML5 and JavaScript. HP has been aggressively talking up its OS, and as recently as Tuesday last week was encouraging other manufactures to use its system in embedded devices in the home.

By the middle of last week, Best Buy was still sitting on 90% of its stock taking up valuable space in its warehouse, after having to move just 25,000 units. With mounting criticism and adjusting the sales predictions to align with reality, HP started discounting the device; first by $50, then by $100. But Engadget wasn't impressed and nor were the general reviews, noting (amongst other things) that there were limited applications for the platform.

Finally, HP pulled the plug a few days later, with an announcement that the Touchpad would no longer be supported or sold. The only device that demonstrated WebOS has been pulled, and the chance of anyone developing applications going through has similarly collapsed upon itself. Whether HP will manage to get anyone to license the system is highly debatable; with no demonstration devices and no ability for developers to create applications, it will remain one of HP's biggest mistakes for years to come. With a $100 firesale to remove any old stock, the now collectors pieces will have disappeared as quickly as they arrived.

Purchases of mobile companies seems fraught with danger. As soon as a smaller, tech innovative company gets purchased by a larger behemoth, the company loses its agility and culture (and in some cases, its key developers). Microsoft purchased Danger's Sidekick, once a darling of the mobile world, fell flat when they lost clients data and is now all but forgotten. Psion almost brought a bluetooth colour organiser to market but left Palm create glory in the 1990s. HP bought Palm (and Compaq) and has now left the hardware business behind it for good. Nokia, once a father figure towards Symbian turned into the ugly stepfather figure and is now placing its bets with Windows Mobile.

Only two entrants have had success over the last decade in mobile. One of them is Google, with its Android operating system – they haven't had a hardware arm and so can be neutral towards other players. The other is Apple with its iPhone that caused a revolution in touch-screen interfaces, first with the iPhone itself and then later with the iPad. But whilst Google's position has been based on one of neutrality, the purchase of Motorola threatens to change the impression, if not the actuality, of that relationship.

What of RIM? The BlackBerry continues to be a major seller for organisations, and its recently launched PlayBook has been received with some praise, but there's a long way to go. The purchase (and use of) a strong embedded operating system like QNX is no guarantee of success, as Symbian licensees know. But it is the outlier in the Android-iOS ecosystem at the moment, and may suffer an HP moment in the future.

One thing's for sure. Being a mobile developer just got much easier, with less device fragmentation. And since all of these devices support HTML5 and the WebKit framework, building portable web-based apps became easier still.

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