Microsofts announcement could not be timed better, coming in the midst of a lawsuit that threatens to shut down BlackBerry service in the United States.
But industry observers say Microsofts offering may not be advanced enough for corporate customers.
Wireless carriers Cingular Wireless, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone on Feb. 13 all announced a free Feature Pack upgrade that enables push e-mail for customers who have devices that run Microsofts Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system.
At the same time, Hewlett-Packard introduced the HP iPAQ hw6900 Mobile Messenger, a handheld device that supports both cellular and Wi-Fi networks, in addition to including the push e-mail access capabilities from Microsoft.
Previous iterations of Microsofts mobile e-mail software have required users to synchronize their handhelds with corporate servers. With the push technology, e-mail is forwarded to their devices automatically.
"Were at the tipping point of seeing exponential growth in this area, with a number of factors coming together to make this happen—from less costly and more varied devices to wider adoption of mobile data among mobile professionals," said Pieter Knook, senior vice president of the Mobile and Embedded Devices Division and Communications Sector Business at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash.
Microsoft officials said the companys push e-mail solution can be used for both on-premises, behind-the-firewall corporate Exchange Server deployments and operator-hosted solutions for small businesses.
On the server side, Microsoft in October 2005 released Service Pack 2 of Microsoft Exchange 2003, which includes the ability to support push e-mail. Customers wanting to support the feature from behind their firewalls must upgrade their Exchange Systems to Service Pack 2.
Microsofts push e-mail offering will compete with software from Good Technology, Visto and, most notably, RIM, which built its success on push e-mail offerings and now offers support for other corporate applications as well.
RIM executives said they were not fazed by Microsofts plans.
"I think most enterprise customers will continue to want a lot more today than can be accomplished through a service pack for wireless e-mail," said Mark Guibert, vice president of marketing at RIM in Waterloo, Ontario. "We launched enterprise-grade wireless e-mail seven years ago, but weve continued to raise the bar for wireless e-mail since and our market is also about much more than wireless e-mail today."
Analysts echoed this sentiment, saying that large corporate customers may be wary of going with a pure Microsoft mobile e-mail deployment, largely because of security concerns.
"Microsoft has only seven or eight security policies to RIM and [Good Technology]s 160 or so," said Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner in San Jose, Calif.
Furthermore, "The hardware just isnt truly competitive just yet and the client software is feature-poor," Dulaney said. "For example, if I get a couple hundred e-mails on my phone I have to delete them one by one by one. Real pain."
Indeed, a Microsoft customer who had tested the push-email solution last fall told eWEEK that the companys push e-mail offering made him nervous. "We have an issue [when] you have to open up certain ports on the firewall," said Schon Crouse, mobility support analyst for Childrens Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio. "Were reluctant to provide direct access from the Internet to our Exchange server."
Merrill Lynch issued a report Feb. 13 maintaining a "Buy" rating for RIM. The report called Microsofts threat to RIM "overblown in the near term," noting that Windows Mobile devices are generally more expensive than BlackBerries.
However, Microsoft and Texas Instruments on Feb. 13 announced that several phone manufacturers are planning to build relatively inexpensive phones that run on Windows Mobile.
Amoi Electronics, HTC and Sagem Communication all are developing new Windows Mobile-based phones based on TIs OMAPV1030 EDGE single-core chip set, Microsoft officials said. Most of the Windows Mobile devices on the market today use a more expensive dual-core chip set, which ups the price of the phone.
These more cost-effective Windows Mobile handsets should be on the market within the next 12 months, officials said.