Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.
Barring any disruptive portfolio shifts prior to its introduction, the Palm Pre will complete a new competitive handset dynamic that began with the introduction of the iPhone. Each of the four major U.S. mobile operators will be emphasizing a capacitive touchscreen smartphone. Curiously, none come from any of the top five global phone manufacturers. And even more curiously, each will be powered by a different operating system as the Pre at Sprint jockeys with the iPhone at AT&T, the BlackBerry Storm at Verizon Wireless, and the T-Mobile G1.
These signature handsets go beyond exclusives or even strong identification with the service provider. They bear the burden of attracting consumers looking for the coolest phone experience or at least minimizing the impact of the other signature handsets. In return, carriers lavish marketing dollars on them. Their role exemplifies a transformation of the market from the days when the RAZR was every carrier's "it" phone and operators competed on their particular shade of pink .
The carriers' selection of their signature handsets must be disappointing to Microsoft, which cannot claim a Windows Mobile device among them. Indeed, the single mobile operator Microsoft highlighted at Mobile World Congress as being an exceptional partner was France's Orange. It's not as if an operating system must be exclusive to the device as there are other BlackBerrys out there (although, as Verizon Wireless tirelessly notes, the Storm is the first touchscreen BlackBerry). And it is only an accident in time that has made the G1 the exclusive Android handset. It certainly isn't about application support as incredibly all of the current signature handsets will have debuted without extensive third-party programs available.
Regardless, though, and despite efforts by HTC, Sony Ericsson and Samsung to skin Windows Mobile as well as Microsoft's own improvements in Windows Mobile 6.1, there is a perceived cachet to these four signature phones that the best Windows Mobile devices are not yet delivering. To claim such status, Microsoft and its partners will have to unseat a competitor. They've come close, at least in interim periods. Prior to the iPhone, Samsung's BlackJack was probably the star of AT&T's smartphone lineup. Sprint turned to the HTC Touch as its first response to the iPhone, and returned to HTC for the Touch Diamond after propping up the Samsung Instinct as more of an iPhone lookalike. T-Mobile also did some Windows Mobile skinning of its own in a bid to turn the Shadow into something Sidekick users grew into.
So Windows Mobile has a seat at the table at all of the major U.S. carriers. But there is often history behind the relationships as well as the technology that has kept it from the throne. It's been reported that Apple formed a close relationship with AT&T back when it was working with what was then Cingular on the Motorola ROKR. Those who know the story of Android know that Danger Research co-founder Andy Rubin (no relation) helped bring T-Mobile the Sidekick. And Palm has had a long history of debuting smartphones with Sprint going back to the earliest Treos.
That leaves Verizon Wireless, which may be Microsoft's best chance for landing a signature handset for two reasons. First, Verizon and Microsoft have long had a strong partnership around Internet content and other collaborations. But the more important link may have been cemented at Mobile World Congress last week as Microsoft announced a strong commitment by smartphone late adopter LG for Windows Mobile. LG is by far the most favored handset manufacturer at Verizon Wireless. Much as Sprint touted the Instinct prior to the Pre, Verizon turned to the LG Voyager as its iPhone response prior to the Blackberry Storm. While Verizon Wireess is certainly under no obligation to feature or even carry any handset LG creates, this is exactly the kind of deep relationship that has been leveraged at other carriers.
Of course, the handset will have to deliver as well. LG's Incite, its first Windows Mobile handset launched on AT&T is a vanilla effort. Touch-friendly improvements and a stronger Web browsing experience coming in Windows Mobile 6.5 will certainly help its future handsets, but it is difficult to see a strong bid until whatever implied major improvements in Windows Phone 7 -- with its hinted integration with desktop Windows 7 and Windows Live -- arrives.. And particularly at Verizon, any handset that hopes to attain signature status will likely have to support VCast, VZ Navigator and other key Verizon Wireless service features.
While Microsoft will no doubt continue to advance its mobile cause at all the major carriers, though, it may be especially keen to convince Verizon that opening up Windows is something worthwhile after a Storm passes.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own