MeeGo and Mango promise mobile web delights
Did Nokia make the right call?
Earlier this year, Nokia derailed the MeeGo operating system project it shared with Intel by making Windows Phone 7 the heart of its strategy. This week, developer briefings have been held for both platforms, outlining their latest upgrades (MeeGo 1.2 and WP7 Mango) plus next generation plans. Both are laying claim to be the best OS to integrate the worlds of applications and the web/cloud, though Intel is looking well beyond the handset in its quest for new partners, while Microsoft still refuses to stretch WP7 even as far as the tablet. The question is, will Nokia have reason to regret its choice in future?
MeeGo is highly unlikely to make much impact on Android, iOS or even WP7 in the handset space, but it is one of a group of new-style platforms optimised for the web and cloud services – others include RIM INQ and HP webOS, and, in a more extreme approach, Google Chrome OS. As such, it could appeal to companies developing new classes of devices for the world where wireless is embedded in everything. That shift may give vendors which have a bit-part role in handsets a chance to gain ground, and if MeeGo becomes a vehicle for that shake-up of the market, Nokia could re-evaluate its choices. Looking to new form factors may have been forced on Intel by the Finnish handset giant's defection, but it is also likely to be the making of MeeGo.
After Nokia, the chances for MeeGo
A developer conference for the platform, held on Monday, attracted a larger number of developers than the previous year's session, and the program was looking resolutely beyond Nokia and handsets. Intel was positioning the OS for all kinds of products, from in-car systems to cloudbooks to set-top boxes – anything that would, in future, feature a browser and web connection.
This focus could play to the open, browser-focused strengths of MeeGo, which was created by merging Intel's and Nokia's respective Linux platforms, Moblin and Maemo, in 2010. It will allow Intel to build an ecosystem outside the handset world, rather than engaging in a David and Goliath battle with Android.
It has already started doing this directly in key markets such as China, where it recently set up a joint venture with local internet giant TenCent. It is also harnessing the open-source nature of MeeGo to foster a more organic ecosystem growth and is keen to stress the truly open, Linux-based nature of its OS – which is hosted by the Linux Foundation. Implicitly, this criticises Android, which although built on a Linux kernel, is under Google's tight control. Updates have not been issued simultaneously to all participants in the community, as in true open source, and the OS is now classified as a fork rather than a real Linux platform.
By contrast, MeeGo supports standard virtual machines, and languages like Python, and – as in Linux – its development is carried out by a community whose work is simply orchestrated by working groups. Imad Sousou, director of Intel's open-source technology center, said that this structure means Intel often hears of new MeeGo applications on the grapevine – though it has not let its grip slacken too much in areas of key importance. For instance, the Chinese activities are under its direct control and it participates very actively in the working groups that are most strategic to it, such as connected TV.
A keynote address from Jim Zemlin, head of the Linux Foundation, concentrated on the benefits of the open ecosystem, and he told the audience: As a device maker, you are dramatically expanding your opportunities. You own the platform. You can create your own app stores. You don't have to pay royalties for anyone for it. You can devise your own services on top of it. You are in a totally new game, and a much better game, a game where you can control your future.
Zemlin added that the OS was already commercial in embedded systems such as cars, and could have the same disruptive effect on emerging device formats that other Linux variants had on servers, shifting the focus and economics towards the open-source community. "We're really in the first five minutes of a very long game with MeeGo," he said.
However, in these first five minutes, the only sector where MeeGo is almost certain to succeed is in the connected car, where it already has a strong position, and this application took center stage at the conference. In the auto market, Nissan Motor is working on MeeGo-based in-car entertainment systems and other electronics. Nissan said it favoured an open-source platform because it reduced cost and allowed third-party apps to be easily incorporated. Last year, the Genivi Alliance chose MeeGo for its reference standard for in-vehicle infotainment (IVI), supporting navigation, entertainment, location-based services, and connectivity to broadband and auto networks. It is creating an open-source platform for both Intel and ARM systems, with backing from BMW, General Motors and Renault.
"We selected MeeGo as the open-source basis for our platform because it is technically innovative and can provide the cross-architecture build support we require for our references," said Graham Smethurst, president of Genivi, in a statement last July. "Working with MeeGo, we expect to establish a solution that effectively merges IVI needs with those of the other MeeGo target device categories."
Other target markets include connected TVs and tablets, as well as Intel's natural hunting ground of netbooks. This last sector could get a boost as a new generation of ultra-portable, low-power PCs emerges, known as cloudbooks. These will typically have the physical appearance of a netbook but run stripped-down Linux-based OSs with browser user interfaces, entirely geared to web activity.
Recently, Intel and the MeeGo community have set up new working groups dedicated to smart TV and – despite the focus on non-phone devices this week – on handsets. The latter features heavy involvement from ZTE and LG, both expected to support MeeGo in future products, and both looking for their own platform as they struggle to rise above the crowd in the midtier of the Android sector. MeeGo supporters see the working groups as one of their best tools for driving the OS into commercial products and attracting partners, Intel said. Amino Communications is using MeeGo for a set-top box for Telecom Italia, which combines conventional and web TV.
Another tactic is to push MeeGo into low-cost laptops for deprived communities, under the One Laptop Per Child initiative. These low-cost notebooks will also be used to provide qualified developers with free hardware on which to test their apps and code. This has been hard to source, said some attendees, a complaint acknowledged by Dawn Foster, a MeeGo community organiser at Intel. In her presentation, she sounded a note of caution, saying it was an "awkward time" because the market was waiting for the devices that would prove the OS's viability. "A lot of companies are working on bringing devices to market, but they are not willing to talk about them yet," she said in her address. "People aren't willing to spend a lot of time learning a new SDK and APIs when there aren't a lot of devices in the market."
German vendor 4titoo had got round that problem by creating its own tablet, the WeTab, primarily as a showcase for its user interface, for which it hopes to get support on set-top boxes, smartphones and other devices. The WeTab, which is also commercially available in Germany, has a touchscreen with small navigation spaces at either edge, for moving around web pages and content with the thumbs.
Microsoft unleashes Mango
Meanwhile, the attentions of the Nokia developer base have been forcibly switched towards WP7, and Microsoft showed off its major upgrade, codenamed Mango, in New York this week. It comes with a revamped user interface, and a focus on integrated applications. The update, which WP7 chief Andy Lees said was "a very big release, and one worth waiting for", will be available free to existing users from autumn. It will also appear in new devices from next month, initially in Verizon Wireless' first WP7 launches.
The platform certainly needs a shot in the arm, even ahead of first devices from Nokia, expected around the turn of the year. Despite a warm reception among many developers and some consumers, mobile versions of Windows continue to see their market share slide in the face of Android – according to Gartner estimates, they had 3.6 per cent of first quarter smartphone sales, half the level of the year-ago period.
A key theme of WP7 has been its deep integration of key apps into the phone functionality, and the ability to access important data and programs directly from the homescreen, without digging down into menus. This approach continues with the 500 updates promised for Mango. Lees commented: "Third-party applications have been freed from their silos. They're part of the total experience."
As an example, Microsoft continues to promote its unique Live Tiles feature, which allows users to create icons for key apps on their homescreens. The apps then feed updates and information to the homescreen so that these can be viewed without delving into the program itself. Product marketing manager Derek Snyder demonstrated an app from British Airways which uses this capability to give users on-screen updates on their flight status, and allows them to put a scannable boarding pass on their home display. This app also shows how the XNA tools, devised for Xbox gaming, are now being extended to WP7 and integrated with its key runtime environment, Silverlight. The BA programme allowed for a 3G walkthrough of a plane for choosing a seat and finding information on menus and in-flight movies.
One of the biggest claims for Mango is that it "blurs the line between apps and internet search", as Derek Snyder put it. His example was a new feature called Quick Cards – searching for a movie, a Quick Card popped up with key information on showtimes and reviews, plus direct links to relevant apps on the phone.
This blurring of the lines is also important to Microsoft's overarching web strategy, to create a full platform around its Bing search engine and brand. Acquisitions such as Skype and new features in WP7 aim to push Bing up against Facebook and Google as a hub for every kind of web and communications activity, across mobile devices and PCs. Among the Bing functions in Mango are Bing Vision, for scanning images and barcodes and then linking directly to web data and phone apps; and App Connect, which ties apps to Bing search tools.
The trend for hyperlocal search is acknowledged with the Local Scout browser tool, which prioritises local search results according to user preferences. Microsoft has also added Visual Search, which initiates Bing searches via barcodes, QR codes and Microsoft Tags; Music Search; and augmented reality support.
There are now 18,000 apps available in the Windows Phone Marketplace, and Mango includes multi-tasking between them. Other improvements concentrated on improved communications, boasting the new People Hub, for tighter integration of Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Outlook and Windows Live Messenger. Support group text and IM was also added and Mango promises it can detect the best method of communication for interacting with contacts.
Mango includes full-blown Internet Explorer 9, with HTML5 support, for mobile browsing speed and there is a redesigned Xbox gaming hub and a cloud storage service called Skydrive. Other updates include a new version of Office, Skype and Twitter apps, and support for further languages. However, the expected introduction of NFC and front-facing cameras were missing.
Although Microsoft has placed most of its hopes of being a mainstream mobile OS supplier on its Nokia alliance, it continues to sign up other hardware partners. Sony Ericsson and Motorola have given WP7 the cold shoulder, for now at least, but Samsung, LG, HTC and Dell were the original supporters, and now they are joined by Acer, Fujitsu and ZTE.
With the coming launch of Mango, Microsoft will begin phasing out its legacy Windows Mobile 6.x operating system this summer, informing developers they can no longer submit new apps or update existing apps after that, although consumers may continue downloading and purchasing software from the Windows Marketplace for Mobile storefront.
Copyright © 2011, Wireless Watch 
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