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Mobile web polarizes as duellists pick their seconds

Verizon/Google vs AppleT&T

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New webphones and 'real' browsers

AT&T is launching the first four webphones that sport its new 'real' browser, based on Opera but carrying the carrier's brand. This aims to help create a mass market, easy-to-use experience that will increase mobile web usage beyond the high end smartphone niche, and will bind subscribers more closely to AT&T. Such efforts, centred on the cellco's own brand and platform, will be even more important should the carrier lose its iPhone exclusive next year, as O2 has in the UK.

Opera is the star among multi-platform mobile browsers, rendering HTML more accurately (still rare on smartphones, even those with integrated browsers), and using compression to reduce overhead on the 3G network (vital to AT&T). It also provides location awareness and short cuts to relevant maps and content. The four phones leading the AT&T browser-phone charge are the Samsung Mythic and Flight, and the Reveal and Impact from Korea's Pantech. All feature quick messaging and touchscreens and will launch at midrange pricing (yet to be detailed) in time for the holiday buying rush. As well as the new browser, they will come preloaded with the att.net service, which allows for personalization and widgets.

The carrier is also building up its software arsenal as it evolves its web services platform, as last week's acquisition of start-up Plusmo highlighted. This indicated AT&T's seriousness about creating a differentiated software platform that will include its own unique applications and widgets. In particular, Plusmo will help it build widgets and apps that span cellphones, PCs and TV, a capability that fixed/mobile and quad play operators believe will help them to preserve differentiation and customer loyalty in future. Orange is particularly aggressive in this respect, even planning a three-screen app store soon.

Plusmo has focused on mobile widgets, but its use of standard web development tools will make its products easy to port to other devices. It says its service currently delivers more than 20,000 mobile widgets to consumers, with a strong focus on sports, and it has relationships with several phonemakers, content owners and carriers. Once the acquisition is complete, Plusmo will become part of AT&T Interactive, the telco said in its statement, though no terms were revealed. AT&T has been fairly active in creating its own apps, including several for the iPhone App Store, such as a Yellow Pages product.

But as long as the iPhone exclusive lasts, Apple is still by far the most significant device partner for AT&T, and is now allied more closely than ever with the carrier in the developing industry battle over the future face of the mobile web. The increasingly polarized strategies of the top two cellcos may start to converge again as exclusives end and flat open networks get built out. For now they are engaged in a stand-off, facing one another from entirely different stances on mobile internet models - one that will help define how US consumers and enterprises experience the mobile web in future.

Copyright © 2009, 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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