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MIPI Alliance: Standards group or Nokia's pawn?

Nokia has been the driving force behind the budding MIPI Alliance standards group, but some believe the organization is merely Nokia's attempt to lock competitors out of the cellular handset industry.

Last July, Nokia Corp. and other mobile phone manufacturers announced a new industry alliance designed to create open standards for mobile device interfaces, but critics say the effort may just be Nokia's attempt to maintain its cellular handset market dominance.

Mobile phone manufacturer Nokia, with semiconductor developer Texas Instruments Inc., microprocessor architecture provider ARM Ltd., and semiconductor solutions company STMicroelectronics Inc. created the Mobile Industry Processor Interface (MIPI) Alliance to foster standards for interfaces within mobile phones.

Standards are needed because phones are becoming increasingly complex, thanks to their color screens, on-board digital cameras and high-speed microprocessors. No organization existed that could develop standards for these diverse interfaces, said Jari Pasanen, Nokia's vice president of computing platforms for mobile phones.

Without standards, manufacturers like Nokia must constantly work with vendors to help them adapt their technologies to their own specifications, Pasanen said. The hope is that the MIPI Alliance will be able to provide developers and manufacturers with standardized interfaces that can be used by all companies.

This will ultimately help to drive down costs for consumers, said Tom Vial, manager of strategic relations at Texas Instruments. "Energy and resources are being spent doing redundant things that do not add significant value to devices," he said.

A small club

But right now, MIPI is only made up of four leading vendors. It has invited others to join the organization but will not be announcing new members until later this year. The presence of these four vendors, all of whom are market leaders in wireless technology and all of whom work with Nokia, has made some in the industry skeptical.

"Right now, this looks like a Nokia love fest," said Ian Gillott, principal of the Austin, Texas-based research firm iGillott Research. Since Nokia is an important partner for all of these vendors, he said, the organization will need to pull in additional members, especially other phone manufacturers, if it plans to be relevant.

While it has invited many others companies in the industry to join, some still remain uncertain. Intel Corp., for example, has not made a decision about joining yet, said Intel spokesman Mark Miller. He said the company wants to be assured that the organization is committed to open standards that will drive growth.

Motorola Inc., a Nokia competitor, is similarly uncommitted at this point. Troy Bailey, director of strategic marketing for Motorola, said the company is still evaluating the MIPI Alliance to determine whether its structure -- a board of 10 members, including the four founding members -- will allow it to be unbiased. Standards, however, are crucial to moving the industry forward, he said.

Too many rules?

But in some instances, standards can also curb diversity, said Ken Hyers, senior analyst with Scottsdale, Ariz.-based research firm In-Stat/MDR. For example, if a vendor develops a great screen that requires a different interface than the standard specifies, that company may be locked out of the market until the next round of standards discussions.

The split on open standards may also have to do with the differences between U.S. and European approaches to the mobile phone market, Hyers said. The Europeans have always pushed hard for strong open standards, like GSM, that create a platform upon which the industry can grow. The U.S. market, on the other hand, has been more diverse, embracing multiple air interfaces and allowing them to compete on their merits, he said.

While Nokia is still the global market leader in the mobile phone space, with 35% of the global market share, according to In-Stat/MDR, its clout -- along with other mobile phone makers -- may be shrinking. Increasingly, it is the carriers that tell manufacturers what features they want, brand the phones and lure in consumers, said Neil Strother, an analyst with In-Stat/MDR. Consumers increasingly shop for wireless plans and phone features, not phone brands.

With pressure to compete in that environment, phone manufacturers may be less open to this standards-based approach, he said. If Nokia wants the MIPI Alliance to have any sway, it will have to foster a larger consortium of the mobile phone market within the group, Strother said.


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