Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.
For many celebrities, 2009 continues to be a year of endings, but at least two handset pioneers have pinned their hopes on rebirths this year. Following Palm's return to its roots with a homegrown operating system earlier this year, Motorola has committed to a new smartphone direction with Android and its BLUR social contact architecture. Motorola's first announced Android device, the CLIQ, is less distinctive than Palm's Pre or Pixi, but advances the horizontal keyboard slider form factor that provided a successful launchpad for the T-Mobile G1. With high-volume competitors Samsung and LG also planning to release Android devices and HTC marrying Android to its Sense user interface, though, Motorola has incentive to differentiate with software.

All smartphones must decide where they want to integrate and where they want to provide a platform for innovation. RIM, for example, has integrated what is still the best e-mail management application into the BlackBerry (although its lack of HTML email and IMAP support are real drawbacks these days) and Apple has integrated both its own Safari browser as well as services such as Google Maps. But now companies such as Palm and Motorola are integrating social networks, and that could have some downsides. Social networks would seem to be a natural point for integration into handsets. As a utility they address a longstanding contact management problem of keeping up to date with changes in contact information -- new phone numbers, new employers, even things that most address books wouldn't consider recording such as relationship status. Second, they are a communications conduit. Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are all messaging systems that provide for group or even individual messaging.

The BLUR philosophy is that people should be able to focus on the people with whom they are connected rather than the medium with which they are being connected. But that is not always so simple in the world of social networks. For example, Twitter's message length restrictions aren't anything new to the wireless market, which has used similarly restricted SMS for years. But with Twitter, one can send a direct message only to someone who is following you. Twitter's direct messaging is not, then, like e-mail or SMS, and it creates a barrier to fluid communications because it is a hybrid between a micropublishing medium and a communications conduit. Best-of-breed Twitter applications reflect this; BLUR may not.

And then there's the question of how willing the likes of Facebook will be to being assimilated as another communications channel that turns it into a Facebook without a face. The megasite used to call itself a "social utility" but is now striving to be the host for applications that are stripped away when one use it as a mere substitute for e-mail and short status updates. Social networks are one of the most dynamic areas of development and investment. And while it would likely take some time for one to reach the scale and vibrancy of Facebook, it wasn't that long ago that Facebook itself stood in the shadow of MySpace.

As discussed in a previous Switched On, handset companies can use widgets to circumvent the app store arms race that Apple is trying to goad them into. Motorola has bubbled functionality up to the top with BLUR, but indiscriminately shoving all communications activity creates chaos, not connection. Motorola may be challenged to create the kind of Internet osmosis in its smartphone operating system that Palm is seeking with its Synergy architecture, but a strength of Android is that customers probably won't have to look far to find alternatives if they feel BLUR has yet to come into focus.


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.

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