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Nokia's increased control over Symbian has sent a clear signal that the Finnish company aims to woo developers in the battle to dominate the mobile platform.

With Symbian OS so closely bound up with Java J2ME, much of Microsoft's response will depend on the upcoming new release of its own alternative, .Net Compact Framework.

The Compact Framework, which enables development of applications optimised for mobile platforms, will be greatly enhanced as part of an overall upgrade to the .Net architecture - codenamed "Whidbey". A pre-release version of Whidbey will be available to developers next month.

Microsoft confirmed reports in internetnews.com that Version 2.0 of CF would be included in Whidbey, adding significant improvements. These include support for the mobile SQL Server CE database and for web services, both critical elements for corporate developers.

Trump card

The raising of CF's profile through the Whidbey launch should boost uptake and reflects the growing importance of such applications to Microsoft. It will be critical for Microsoft to play up CF and ensure that it is robust, in order to hold on to its trump card - the ability for companies to build mobile apps using existing Visual Basic skills rather than specialised embedded programming.

This is an advantage that the company could too easily lose to Java, which is also gaining ground in the enterprises, more sophisticated in terms of mobile support, and supporting applications that can be ported across a variety of client platforms.

It is not just a choice between open and lock-in, or between CF's relative simplicity and Java's complexity. Many sites will make the decision for or against .Net at a higher level and then bring the mobile strategy in line with that.

Philosophy

That choice, and the products that go with it, reflect the contrasting philosophies of the two camps: Microsoft needing to believe that mobile devices will get smarter and, like the PC, be the main centre of intelligence; Sun looking to smaller devices with the data and intelligence on the server; and Nokia wanting something in-between, with data held centrally but the client machine being increasingly sophisticated in terms of applications and media processing.

Of course, Microsoft's dilemma, despite the improvements in CF, remains that its rich user interface and applications plans do not translate well to a mobile phone; while Sun's and Nokia's is that J2ME apps exist on millions of phones, but are rarely rich enough to appeal to the business user. The company that grabs the no-man's land in between will be the winner of the corporate developer's mind.

Whidbey's version of CF is a clear attempt to do that. It includes native C++ smart device support, making the environment more realistic for mobile platforms. It will also offer new classes and controls for accessing telephony features, messaging and SMS.

© Copyright 2004 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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