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It’s been only one month since the Nokia N-gage game phones were introduced as a potential Game Boy killer. But that’s a lifetime in the hacker world. Reuters reports that hackers have spoiled the party for Nokia, cracking into the N-gage’s copy-protection code and making the games available for free download over the Internet. For Nokia, a relative newcomer to the gaming industry, this will be just the first of many challenges to come.

The handheld gaming business is entering a Thunderdome of competition. After years ruling the market, Nintendo is facing not only Nokia but soon Sony, which plans to release its own handheld gaming device, the PSP, by the end of 2004. Nintendo has already stepped up to the plate by planning to release a wireless 2.4 GHz radio frequency chipset in Japan early next year; the chipset will allow up to five players to wirelessly connect with each other for multiplayer competition.

How will Nokia fare? That depends on how well it overcomes at least two formidable hurdles. By relying on digital distribution, unlike Nintendo and Sony, Nokia will continue to be vulnerable to online piracy. And the even bigger challenge is a matter of branding. With Nintendo and Sony long established leaders in the $10.8 billion electronic entertainment market, Nokia, like it or not, is new to the game.

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