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.