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Last week, Samsung held the official launch of its Mobile WiMAX product range - formerly known as Wi-Bro and now rechristened to emphasise its harmonisation with the international standard.

Apart from an array of trialists and potential customers - including, significantly, NTT DoCoMo and Clearwire - the spotlight was largely stolen by the first dual-mode WiMAX/CDMA device, a product that Samsung claims could replace the PC in the same way that personal broadband networks like 802.16 will replace the fixed, PC-connected internet link.

That idea is nothing new of course, but Samsung's SPH-P9000 device - running Windows but looking very little like a traditional PC-oriented PDA - highlights the key issue: will the PC's mobile successor be a Windows device in a new form factor, or an entirely new beast owing a greater debt to the cellphone?

For Microsoft, the answer is critical, since Windows is still not a natural fit for a mobile platform that has no PC heritage. Its future success lies not in religiously promoting the PC/PDA model of device - especially in consumer markets, where expectations of user interfaces and functionality are changing rapidly and are not dictated by Wintel - but in making Windows as adaptable as possible to devices of all descriptions, rather than tying itself to PC-style functionality or the Intel roadmap.

So far, while enthusiastic about Wi-Fi, it has been hesitant on WiMAX, but the future of Windows in the mobile world will be safeguarded by its supporting all the new broadband wireless networks.

A sign that it may be taking this on board, and taking new interest in 802.16, comes with a joint development with chipmaker and OFDM specialist Runcom to create a set of Windows Mobile drivers for WiMAX.

The aim of this venture is to prove that WiMAX can be a plug and play environment, as it has promised in the past, and to give Runcom's 802.16e CPE chipset an edge over its rivals - chief among them France's Sequans and, in future, Intel - by incorporating Windows support at an early stage.

With Samsung also running Windows, and the first WiMAX PDAs geared to enterprise users, this could be a major opportunity for Microsoft to steal a march in this sector and establish a lead for its operating system that it has been denied in other mobile arenas because of the dominance of the handset majors such as Nokia.

With Nokia out of the WiMAX CPE picture for at least another year, Microsoft should look to ally closely with the early entrants - subscriber unit chipmakers like Runcom and device manufacturers like Samsung and LG - to gain a first mover advantage.

Runcom claims that users will be able to connect Windows Mobile 5.0 devices to 802.16e networks simply by inserting a Mobile WiMAX CompactFlash or USB card (such as its own RNE200 CF card) without downloading or installing drivers. Runcom VP of marketing Israel Koffman called his company's collaboration with Microsoft "a very significant step" toward making OFDMA a mass market technology.

In the short term, multimode devices that allow users to roam from WiMAX to Wi-Fi and cellular networks will be even more important in creating early market mass, and this is where Samsung is leaping ahead as it seeks to exploit the headstart that it gained when the Korean Wi-Bro technology was chosen as the basis of 802.16e.

It has already reaped some benefits from that situation in the infrastructure side, powering the first commercial mobile WiMAX service, run by Korea Telecom in Seoul, and of course winning part of the huge Sprint Nextel contract.

In Seoul last week, the electronics giant was focusing more on its greater strength, mobile devices, where it also aims to steal a march on Motorola and Nokia by launching products that conform to the first generation of the 802.16e standard - basically Wi-Bro - rather than waiting for the more sophisticated second wave.

The SPH-P9000 boasts CDMA EV-DO, 802.16e and Bluetooth capabilities as well as a folding qwerty keyboard, 1.3megapixel camera and music player, and Windows Mobile - positioning it, as Samsung says, as an alternative to the PC, and "the only device a user needs" for both work and leisure.

The product comes with five-inch WVGA screen and 30Gbytes hard drive, and weighs just over one pound. It will ship in early 2007. The next generation of the device will run on Intel chips.

Copyright © 2006, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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