Airstream Push Has Yet to Fly

Six months after microsoft Corp. trumpeted it as the anchor of the company's developing wireless initiative, the so-called Airstream wireless server platform is still far from delivering on its promises.

Six months after microsoft Corp. trumpeted it as the anchor of the companys developing wireless initiative, the so-called Airstream wireless server platform is still far from delivering on its promises. Furthermore, it is in danger of being mired in a confusing competitive battle with a wireless company Microsoft has invested in.

Microsoft officials defend the Airstream middleware platform—now known as Mobile Information 2001 Server, or MIS—saying the beta version has shipped as promised and Version 1.0 will be commercially available in May.

However, the forthcoming offering falls well short of the Redmond, Wash., vendors initial promises of a platform that will translate application data for use on a variety of handheld devices and cellular phones. MIS will support only WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) phones in its initial release.

In addition to the lackluster rollout, MIS will compete directly with products from Wireless Knowledge Inc.—a company in which both Microsoft and Qualcomm Inc. invested in 1998. While Microsoft has wrestled with its wireless server, Wireless Knowledge developed and is now selling Workstyle Server, a platform that supports a number of applications—both Microsoft and non-Microsoft—on a number of wireless devices.

Last summer, both Microsoft and Wireless Knowledge officials maintained that both would not compete. But now, a rift between the two appears to be developing.

"We think of Wireless Knowledges Workstyle Server as an early version of Mobile Information Server," said Pat Fox, director of marketing at Microsofts Mobility Group. "We have jointly acknowledged that Mobile Information Server is the strategic platform for both companies."

Microsoft officials make a point of saying they expect Workstyle Server customers to migrate to MIS when the latter arrives in a more mature form. They also maintain that Wireless Knowledge will give up its platform development efforts to work full time on applications that will run on MIS.

But Wireless Knowledge has 74 customers and a new attitude along with its new product, Anystyle Server, which it will launch this week. Officials of the San Diego company say its enterprise customers wont be migrating to Microsofts platform any time soon.

"Theres nothing there that says the day MIS comes out that we have to put a bullet in Workstyle Servers head," said Peggy Biddison, chief marketing officer for Wireless Knowledge. "Theyre not fully aware of everything that were doing. We plan on being a built-to-last company."

Wireless Knowledge officials say their products support far more applications and devices than Microsofts. Workstyle Server, the flagship product, is a browser-based application that supports myriad wireless devices for access to Microsofts Exchange 5.5 and Exchange 2000, as well as Lotus Development Corp.s Domino.

Anystyle Server works both online and offline. It will support Research In Motion Ltd. pagers at first, with support for Palm Inc. and Pocket PC devices coming later this year.

Another product, code-named Echo Mobility Workbench, due in a few weeks, will be a separate development tool that lets developers use the core technology from Workstyle Server to build custom applications for wireless device access to customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning and any other applications.

All three products support both Microsoft and Unix platforms.

Illustrating what Wireless Knowledge officials say is the growing gap between Microsofts efforts and the current state of wireless technology, the initial version of MIS supports Exchange 5.5 and Exchange 2000, but only for one kind of device.

"Version 1.0 of MIS is a WAP phone version only, so its not going to be robust," Biddison said. "[Meanwhile], were on Version 3.5 [of Workstyle Server]."

Even when it finally does close the development gap and introduces support for a variety of devices, Microsoft plans to make MIS a Microsoft-only platform, supporting all Microsoft applications and only Microsoft applications, sources said. Any migration from Wireless Knowledge products to MIS would lock users into a single line of applications.

"We would recommend that you use Wireless Knowledge because theyre going to be much more independent about supplying anything thats not Microsoft," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Dataquest, in San Jose, Calif.

Industry observers, even those who compete with Wireless Knowledge, said they are not surprised by Microsofts entries in the wireless server arena to date.

"MIS is a first-generation Microsoft product," said Nathan Freitas, CIO at ThinAir Inc., in New York. "Microsoft usually takes a few generations of anything to get it right."

Others said they hoped Microsofts heft—if not its track record—could inject some energy in the emerging technology.

"When Microsoft deploys its solution, Id be delighted to be there trying to leverage it," said Mike Dolbec, senior vice president of business development at OmniSky Corp., a wireless Internet service provider and customer of Wireless Knowledge in Palo Alto, Calif.