RealTime IT News

Microsoft Vows to Partner for Mobile Success

SAN FRANCISCO -- Already dominant in both consumer and enterprise markets, Microsoft is looking to mobile devices to fuel further growth in each.

Central to that strategy is to make phones "smarter" with new applications and capabilities, according to Microsoft President and CEO Steve Ballmer.

Ballmer took the stage today at the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association's (CTIA) Wireless IT and Entertainment conference to pitch Microsoft's role in the convergence of the consumer and enterprise mobile markets.

Coinciding with the announcement of a new platform for mobile device management by IT staff and demonstrations of hot new Windows Mobile phones aimed at media-hungry consumers, Redmond's efforts to make headway in the wireless space seem to be gaining steam.

Yet Ballmer made it clear that Microsoft is out to partner with telecoms and other industry players, not compete with them. Instead, he said the company is banking on third-party developers to fuel the mobile industry.

"Third-party innovation will be critical to bringing together the best of the phone, the PC, the enterprise and online," Ballmer said in his keynote address. "I don't think there's ever been a better time to be working on mobile scenarios. Microsoft is interested in leading innovation, but also in partnering with you."

Microsoft's focus on wireless shouldn't be surprising, considering the sizable base of domestic mobile users. According to the CTIA, there are now 243 million mobile carrier subscribers in the United States, and they send close to 1 billion text messages each day.

Ballmer said Microsoft would avoid overreaching, however. In a brief Q&A following the keynote, CTIA CEO Steve Largent let Ballmer get in a dig at archrival Google on that subject.

When asked whether Microsoft had plans to bid in the upcoming wireless spectrum auction, Ballmer drew applause with his response.

"We think we have a core competence, and the service providers have a core competence," he said. "Owning one piece of spectrum in one country would probably do a lot to alienate the telecom industry, and it doesn't advance our goal of spreading our technology everywhere. We're trying to be an enabler of third parties."

He pointed out that Microsoft built its business on partnerships with hardware and chip manufacturers, saying, "The device makers and telecom service providers are the HPs, Intels and Dells of the mobile world."

Ballmer's pitch for greater support from the wireless community comes the same day as the company announced a new mobile-dedicated server offering that will let IT administrators manage Windows Mobile phones as easily as they do PCs.

That product, Microsoft System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008, is based on Microsoft Management Console, and it makes use of Active Directory to provide a mobile portal where business users can enroll their mobile devices. Admins can see device status, pre-configure devices with applications or provision apps over the air. It also provides a mobile, private virtual network with security-enhanced access to corporate data.

Microsoft System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008 is expected to be available later this year, and the newer crop of phones will be automatically updated to work with it.

The company's big play at the CTIA show also follows other enterprise communications moves, particularly the launch last week of Microsoft's new Unified Communications software, Office Communications Server. The idea behind the server is to provide enterprises with a means to more fully merge voice and PC-based communications, making getting in touch with a colleague less cumbersome.

Also on the mobile front, Microsoft in February introduced Windows Mobile 6, formerly called Windows CE 6.0. The update aimed to create a platform robust enough to compete with entrenched mobile enterprise service providers, which include Research in Motion and Palm. The mobile operating system uses a compact version of the .NET framework and a mobile version of SQL Server to deliver more applications without creating a memory shortage.

Microsoft also has big goals for the consumer market, Ballmer said today, and vowed to be persistent until Microsoft gets the consumer space right.

"We have to think of the phone as the universal remote control for your business life as well as your personal life," he said, demonstrating how to use a smartphone to remotely schedule a TV recording on a Windows Media Center PC. He added that Microsoft is bringing Windows Live Search, Windows Live Mail and Hotmail to mobile devices, and is offering search via voice as well as text.

Ballmer outlined a future in which consumer phones used in developed countries are capable of acting as "remote controls" for other devices. In the developing world, they could serve as PC alternatives, he said.

A number of Microsoft product managers joined Ballmer onstage to highlight some of the ways the company's mobile efforts could benefit consumers, demonstrating sophisticated mobile phones based on its OS and running sophisticated applications.

One product, the Samsung Blackjack II smartphone, features GPS and will be available later this year exclusively through AT&T. Another phone available from AT&T, the Tilt, has a QWERTY keyboard and a screen that can be tilted to maximize visibility.

Other smartphones offered links to several e-mail accounts, including webmail and Microsoft Exchange services, or enabled users to access a full-color, zoomable map and to perform searches using voice control.

Plans also are in the works, Ballmer added, to bring Xbox 360 and computer games to the tiny screen as well.