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Microsoft takes a back seat as Orange goes for the eyes

Battle lines drawn in the fight for mobile screen

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Mobile World Congress Orange upped the ante in the battle for control of the mobile phone screen by today announcing its "Accelerated Signature Program", which sees a host of applications and unifying interfaces pre-installed on a range of handsets, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

At the same time, Microsoft conceded defeat by withdrawing its brand into the Windows Mobile menu structures and back-end servers.

The expansion of Orange's signature program comes as no great surprise, though the fact it has dropped its SIM-hosted content will be a blow to the SIM industry for which Orange had become something of a poster child.

More branding on applications, and the ability to gently guide users towards premium content, is something all operators have played around with and something at which Orange has proven quite adept, even if its software can prove irritatingly difficult to remove.

Ericsson's new handsets demonstrate just how far Microsoft is prepared to go in giving up the phone's idle screen: network or manufacturer branding takes prominence and innovative interfaces are allowed, but the left soft key (Start Key) will always take the user to the familiar Windows Mobile menu system.

Microsoft's major innovations are in the back end of the network, controlling the services users access. Today's announcement, of an open network API allowing anyone to create clients to access services including Hotmail and Windows Live Messaging, owes more to a perceived threat from Google than any innovation coming out of Redmond, but should be applauded nonetheless. The new APIs come with an updated version of the Windows Live Mobile Developer Program, and claim to be WS* compliant.

Microsoft is also trying to make money out of its mobile offerings, signing up brands including Nike and Verizon to appear on the smallest screen, and using the technology it acquired with the purchase of Screen Tonic to deliver the ads to anyone using its applications, regardless of the underlying platform.

Last year, everyone was talking about the mobile phone screen as the next great battleground, but a year later the majority of users are still accessing applications provided by their network operator using an interface supplied by their handset manufacturer. That is slowly changing, and the next few days are likely to reveal more strategies, and technologies, designed to grab you by the eyes. ®

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