War in the Pocket • Page 2

Microsoft has a new ally in attempts at a mobile foothold - but this is only the first step.

Nokia, in this case, isn't quite the world's biggest rabbit - in fact, it's something of a skinny and troubled-looking bunny - but it used to be the world's biggest a few years ago, and that has to count for something.

The company, crucially, has exactly what Microsoft lacks - enormous experience and resources in the field of designing mobile hardware. Adopting an external company's OS is the right thing for the Finnish firm to do, because it's almost beyond question that what has held it back shockingly badly in recent years is the abysmal nature of its user interface - the software, not the hardware, of its phones.

Now Nokia has a solid OS, and Microsoft has a partner with solid device experience. The ideal-world scenario for both companies would be that their combined abilities corner a large enough chunk of the market to attract developers to the platform - levelling the playing field with iOS and Android, and at least allowing them to compete on old-fashioned factors like device attractiveness and functionality, rather than simply being dismissed for having no software worth running.

There are, of course, flies in the ointment. The first is that Nokia's devices won't turn up until 2012, and until then, Windows Phone 7 is going to have to keep trundling along with device support that, bluntly, isn't enough to make it into a serious contender in a market with two such serious rivals.

As such, there is a risk that the arrival of Nokia's devices will not be a triumphant new wave of WP7 support, but rather an attempt to resuscitate a platform that's failing in the market - a much harder job, at least from a perception point of view.

The other rather major problems are, of course, the rivals on the playing field. Neither Apple nor Google, nor Sony, are going to stay still for the next year. Mobile platform development is extremely rapid - with the Xperia Play almost out the door, we can probably expect to see several more PlayStation Suite devices on the market by 2012, while Apple will obviously update the iPhone and its other iOS devices throughout the course of this year.

More importantly, other factors are already changing the playing field that Nokia and Microsoft hope to kick their ball onto in 2012. Where Android still feels like a plucky challenger to iOS at present, within the year it'll be a much more mature platform. Where smartphones rule the mobile space for now, the uptick in sales of tablet devices running smartphone operating systems seems to be an inexorable trend.

Moreover, we're seeing definite shifts in how gaming works on these devices - the rapid development of a "high end" space accommodating more hardcore titles like Infinity Blade and Dead Space (which require technology and tools to be in place), the movement towards freemium or ad-revenue business models (which need to be supported by the underlying platform), even the emergence of platform-defining titles with high public recognition, such as Angry Birds.

It's a tough marketplace and not one which is getting easier - and before now, few would have bet on Nokia doing anything other than sliding to the bottom of the pile. Microsoft, however, has taken on plenty of big challenges in the past, not least of them being Sony's stranglehold on the console market.

The stakes in this game are huge - and before picking sides, game publishers and developers would do well to consider whether having any one clear victor would truly be the best outcome for them or for the market.

If you work in the games industry and want more views, and up-to-date news relevant to your business, read our sister website GamesIndustry.biz, where you can find this weekly editorial column as soon as it is posted.

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