China Mobile's Upgraded Smartphone OS to Boost 3G Use

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China Mobile is preparing to launch new upgrades for its favored smartphone operating system that it believes will help turn the tide in boosting the appeal of the company's 3G network.

The carrier plans on launching version 2.5 of the OPhone mobile OS in February or March, said Lu Zhihu, a deputy director at the China Mobile Research Institute, speaking at the 2010 International Mobile Internet Conference in Beijing. Later in 2011, the carrier will launch version 3.0. Smartphones using the new versions will have voice recognition and better connectivity to mobile services.

The OPhone OS was developed by a company in China called Borqs. The OS uses Google's Android as its foundation and adds characteristics specific to China.

China Mobile, the country's largest mobile operator with more than 570 million customers, has selected the OS to be used on the carrier's smartphones. But the company faces a challenge in promoting handsets for a 3G network that uses a relatively new technology standard native to China.

Called TD-SCDMA (Time-Division Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access), the standard was created in China as a way to reduce the country's dependence on foreign technologies. China Mobile began offering the service in January of 2009. But so far only a small portion of its subscriber base, 16.9 million customers, use the company's 3G network.

Analysts say the carrier's TD-SCDMA standard has prevented it from offering the most popular smartphones on the market. Many of these devices have been built to use overseas 3G standards. This has left handsets like Apple's iPhone 4 to be sold through rival China Unicom, which uses the WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) 3G standard for its network.

China Mobile executives have acknowledged that there is still plenty of room to improve on TD-SCDMA smartphone development. Manufacturers of TD handsets have made big gains with the improvement of the devices, said Yu Chuan, the department director of terminal technology for the China Mobile Research Institute.

"But when compared with the terminals using other standards, we still have a ways to go," he said.

Yu made the comment while speaking to an audience at the mobile Internet conference. To prove his point, he then asked audience members to raise their hand if they used a TD-SCDMA phone. Only about one fifth of the audience raised their hands.

He then asked how many were actually allowing their phones to use the TD-SCDMA network.

"I see only four people," Yu said. "Well, then I can confidently say TD terminals using OPhone 2.5 and later versions will be the best."

Newer versions of the OPhone OS will help improve the quality of using the TD-SCDMA network, Yu added. China Mobile has put out smartphones using the OPhone OS since August 2009. The carrier has used the OS to install company backed services such as its own app store as well as offer convenient mobile payment options for its users.

The OPhone OS so far has been featured on higher-end smartphones. But officials with the China Mobile Research Institute said the goal is to begin using the OS on more medium and lower-end smartphones, to lower prices. Many smartphones are priced from 2000 yuan up to 5000 yuan (US$300 to $752). But companies have sought to lower the prices to 1,000 yuan ($150).

Major handset manufactures like Motorola, Samsung and Sony Ericsson have already begun building phones using the TD-SCDMA network. More than 20 devices operate with the OPhone OS. On Monday, China Mobile also announced it was working to establish an "innovation alliance" to further develop the OPhone OS, although the company provided few details of the project.

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