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Microsoft's Move on the Mobile Space

Redmond's hand-held development strategy gains focus and momentum.

Despite more than a decade trying to establish itself as the premier supplier of mobile solutions, Microsoft has had little to show for its efforts. That could be changing.

Microsoft recently rolled out several new and updated products that are crucial to boosting its status in the mobile sector-beginning with the enterprise mobility space. And it will strengthen that push this spring.

In February, the company officially unveiled Windows Mobile 6 (WM6), which promises to consolidate Microsoft's three mobile operating systems offerings into a single OS. WM6 stores key components in read-only memory (ROM) to shrink the system's footprint on mobile devices' RAM.

Also in February, Microsoft shipped its .NET Micro Framework, a technology meant to provide system functions to devices that are mobile, but lack the processing power and memory to run a full-blown operating system. These devices are called Smart Personal Objects Technology, or SPOT, and include devices such as smart watches and GPS units.

The two technologies are initially aimed at different audiences. WM6 and the Microsoft .NET Compact Framework target enterprise customers, while the SPOT technologies and .NET Micro Framework target consumers.

Windows Everywhere
The new offerings should resolve many of the shortcomings that have limited adoption of Microsoft mobile platforms in the past. For example, Microsoft didn't support direct-push e-mail, which helped turn Research In Motion (RIM) Ltd.'s Blackberry into a killer app, until Windows Mobile 5 was released in the fall of 2005.

With the arrival of WM6 expected in mid- to late-April, Microsoft is further tuning its Blackberry killer. All WM6-powered devices will include direct-push technology for e-mail delivery and automatic synchronization of Outlook calendars, tasks and contacts through Exchange Server, according to Microsoft documents. WM6 also adds support for an Exchange Server 2007 feature that enables mobile users to download an attachment to an e-mail without having to download the e-mail itself.

In the area of memory demands, WM6 puts more than 7MB of the .NET Compact Framework, as well as SQL Server 2005 Compact Edition, into ROM. Not having to load that into memory at runtime saves precious system RAM. And it will enable developers to write much smaller programs, because they no longer have to include the Framework or database libraries with their code.

"It's all about .NET Compact Framework 2.0 ... it's now in ROM so developers can put their applications on a diet," says Derek Snyder, a product manager for WM6 in Microsoft's developer marketing and product management group.

Derek Snyder"You can begin developing for smart devices right out of the box. It's going to allow a lot of developers to move from native to managed code."
-- Derek Snyder, Product Manager for Windows Mobile 6, Microsoft Developer Marketing and Product Management Group

WM6 will also provide a set of device security and management features that include capabilities to remotely wipe all data from a device should it be lost or stolen, helping to block accidental disclosure of confidential information.

Another addition in WM6 is "lite" support for asynchronous JavaScript and XML or AJAX. WM6 has an updated version of Internet Explorer Mobile that includes the XML DOM (document object model) and JavaScript support required to run basic AJAX applications. This enables developers to use their existing ASP.NET, XML and JavaScript skills to build browser-based applications that run on Windows Mobile 6 devices.

With that support, developers can deploy an application by e-mailing its URL to users. The users browse to the URL using IE Mobile. No additional software has to be installed on the device because Internet Explorer Mobile includes everything necessary to run basic AJAX programs, according to company statements.

Microsoft is putting together a compelling developer story with its refreshed mobile offerings. Developers can build applications for both the .NET Compact Framework 2.0 and its younger and smaller sibling technology, the .NET Micro Framework, entirely within Visual Studio 2005. The ability to work within a single toolset for mobile, desktop and server side development is a huge boon for dev shops, which face training, licensing and other costs when forced to deploy a new development platform.

"The complete development experience is in Visual Studio, whether it's a [SPOT] watch or an enterprise application," says Snyder. You can begin developing for smart devices right out of the box. It's going to allow a lot of developers to move from native to managed code."

The .NET Compact Framework 2.0 shipped in fall 2005. Windows Mobile 6 includes the .NET Compact Framework 2.0 SP 1. A WM6 software developer kit is scheduled for release in March, and the SDK will be "refreshed" at the Microsoft Embedded Device Conference (MEDC) 2007 in Las Vegas in early May.

Meanwhile, the next major update to the .NET Compact Framework also comes at MEDC 2007. It will be dubbed version 3.5, however, in order to keep from confusing it with the .NET Framework 3.0, which is for desktop and server development.

Finding Its Way
The confusion with .NET brand names and versions may seem silly, but it reflects years of struggle by Microsoft to make headway in the mobile device market. Now the company seems poised to break through. And development shops supporting mobile platforms will need to take notice.

According to figures from Gartner Inc., Microsoft's beginning to make gains in the mobile platform space, pulling ahead of leaders like RIM's Blackberry line of personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Some 17.7 million PDAs shipped in 2006, according to Gartner. Of those, about 3.5 million were RIM Blackberry devices. In contrast, nearly 10 million were Windows Mobile-based devices. "Microsoft is the dominant player in the PDA space but a small player in the smartphone [market]," says Todd Kort, principal analyst at Gartner.

"[The company's] been getting some traction in the enterprise ... [so] I think [it's] fairly well positioned," he adds.

Of course, the enterprise space is all about capturing continuous revenue from data and voice subscriptions. "RIM, as of the end of November, had about 7 million subscribers and by now it's probably reached 8 million ... [and] Microsoft has probably an equal number, but not everyone has wireless e-mail." But, he adds, Microsoft only rolled out its own direct push system last summer.

Additionally, there are roughly 125 million Exchange e-mail users. "[Microsoft] certainly [has] an advantage over Nokia and the other vendors with that [installed base]," Kort notes.

Kort also points out that developers are already familiar with Visual Studio, Exchange, SQL Server and other Microsoft tools. "You've got people in-house that have been writing [enterprise] applications for desktops and servers [using Visual Studio] for years," he says.

A Long Learning Curve
Microsoft's mobile efforts have been limited, in part, by its "Windows everywhere" strategy, which sought to scale the flagship OS from servers to SPOT watches. Despite the potential benefits of a shared code base and common tools, the hardware demands of the approach reigned in adoption.

That should change, experts say, as falling prices and improving integration remove key barriers to entry for Microsoft's WM6.

"It's hard for me to believe that anyone is going to be able to keep Microsoft and its licensees from becoming dominant in the enterprise device business," Gartner's Kort says.

However, Microsoft has suffered setbacks in the mobile space before. In late 1998 Microsoft and Qualcomm started a company called Wireless Knowledge, which was to provide hosted wireless data services, including e-mail based on Exchange Server and Web access. The idea was to fuel adoption of the two companies' technologies in the mobile phone sector -- Microsoft's Windows CE and Qualcomm's CDMA. The companies also formed the alliance to build what today is called Windows Mobile into Qualcomm's handset chips.

The partnership never paid off the way Microsoft hoped. A confused market picture and slower-than-expected rollout of next-generation 3G network technologies resulted in tepid sales. Within a couple years, Qualcomm bought out Microsoft's share in Wireless Knowledge, and the company was quietly folded back into Qualcomm.

The concept finally did take hold a few years later, in the form of RIM's Blackberry.

It's the Customer, Stupid
Microsoft has also had difficulty convincing enterprise customers that they not only needed to go mobile, but also that Redmond should be their one-stop shopping center.

Microsoft Windows Mobile 6
[click image for larger view]
With the arrival of Windows Mobile 6, Microsoft is further tuning its Blackberry killer.

Lockheed Martin (LM), for one, looked long and hard at Microsoft's products and capabilities. As chief architect for the company's CTO's office, Ajit Kapoor developed a roadmap for supporting mobile computing and communications in support of the company's so-called "real-time strategy."

"My strategic affinity with Microsoft was driven by [its] long-term vision of making .NET [into] a holistic convergence platform. Having invested in Microsoft infrastructure, it was only prudent to pursue [Microsoft] development and leverage [its] capabilities," says Kapoor, who is currently principal and managing director of The Kapoor Group, a global consultancy for aligning business with IT expenses.

However, Kapoor was disappointed.

"Upon closer working with [Microsoft], it became quite clear that [the company] had a fragmented strategy and the glossy convergence theme had very little organization -- content and resources -- under the cover."

At the time, for instance, Microsoft did not provide a direct-push e-mail capability. Now that's changed.

"The lack of this capability three or four years ago was a major factor for us to go to RIM. Now, of course, we can make a case for reduced support cost [on a single Microsoft platform], but the user reluctance and retraining and testing are a major factor in impeding Microsoft's entry inside RIM's customer base," Kapoor adds.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.

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