Microsoft Wireless OS On New Path

Late to the smart-phone operating system game and eager to make up ground in the United States

Late to the smart-phone operating system game and eager to make up ground in the United States, Microsoft Corp. is now focusing its forthcoming mobile operating system on its loyal customer base: the enterprise.

As U.S. carriers are not ready to begin deploying high-speed wireless networks, such as GPRS (General Packet Radio Service)—networks on which Microsofts forthcoming Stinger OS would run—the Redmond, Wash., software giant is hoping its new focus will encourage enterprise customers to pressure carriers for the technology. However, the strategy is anything but foolproof.

Stinger, a scaled-down version of Windows CE 3.0, has been under development for the past two years. Microsofts goal is to enable users of Stinger-based smart phones to run simple, Windows-based applications that integrate voice and data.

For instance, according to Phil Holden, director of marketing for Microsofts Mobile Devices division, a user could send a text message to a Stinger phone that includes a phone number. Once received, that number becomes "hot," and the recipient will be able to simply tap the number, and the phone will automatically dial it.

But, in addition to the carriers reluctance to turn on high-speed wireless service, Stinger faces numerous other obstacles, including a serious lack of handset support.

So far, only three vendors have signed up for Stinger: Samsung Electronics Inc., Mitsubishi Inc. and British newcomer Sendo plc. The latter two were announced last week at the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes, France.

Meanwhile, the major cell phone makers, Nokia Corp., Motorola Inc., Psion plc. and Telephon AB L.M. Ericsson, support a competing platform that they all helped develop: Symbian Ltd.s Epoc platform.

"Its almost like [Microsofts] trying to hold a party, but nobody is showing up," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst with Gartner Group Inc., in San Jose, Calif. "We think the Stinger phone is good, but it may be that everyones so afraid of Microsoft getting a foothold in the space that theyre not going to give them support."

The idea that Microsoft is simply trying to migrate its proprietary philosophy to the wireless world is a concern to some.

"Its Microsofts attempt to make a be-all, end-all low-cost integrated mobile device for business users," said Nathanial Freitas, chief technology officer at Thin Air Apps LLC, a wireless application company in New York. "While third parties may be able to use it for other applications, its primary focus is as a mobile terminal for Microsoft enterprise products.

"Many of our customers are interested in what Microsoft has to offer. ... However, the majority of enterprise customers today want a solution that is multidevice: Palm OS, Pocket PC, WAP [Wireless Application Protocol], HDML [Handheld Device Markup Language], CHTML [compact HTML] et cetera, and Microsoft is not providing that," Freitas said.

Microsofts Holden acknowledged his companys desire to get more enterprises linked to its products, especially its new Mobile Information 2001 Server, formerly called Airstream. The company plans to beta test Stinger phones this summer.

"These network trials that were trying to do are all about MIS talking into our devices," Holden said.

While MIS is supposed to support myriad devices eventually, the initial version will support only WAP phones.

All this may be moot, according to some users. "We dont have any current applications that require integration of voice and data," said Philip Holden, a senior systems analyst at American Airlines Inc., in Dallas. "Everyone says, Gee, thats a gorgeous X-Class Jaguar, but its not practical."

For its part, Microsoft isnt exactly clear on how it plans to address the enterprise. In fact, at this point, the enterprise focus is more of a hope than a strategy as much of its success hinges on the carriers rollout of supporting networks.

"If a corporation knocked on the door of an operator and said, Hey, we want to deploy X number of boxes, the operator would respond," Microsofts Holden said.

Besides carrier support, Stinger will need the backing of the application development community. But while Microsoft readies its summer beta tests, wireless application developers have yet to see development tools for the operating system, which is based on Windows CE and is designed to integrate with Windows applications.

This is not dissimilar to Symbians initial rollout of Epoc, which was not made available for application downloading.

The idea of going through the enterprise to get to the carrier is nothing new for Microsoft. Wireless Knowledge, which Microsoft launched with Qualcomm Inc. two years ago, tried unsuccessfully to woo carriers directly with its wireless middleware. When that didnt work, the company shifted gears and started selling its platform directly to enterprise customers.

And Microsoft is not limiting itself to GSM [Global System for Mobile Communication] and GPRS networks, the latter of which are not expected to be widely deployed before next year, even in Europe. Officials said they hope to have a version of Stinger running on Code Division Multiple Access in time for the CTIA Wireless Show next month, but it is doubtful that the phone will be generally available in the United States this year.

At the 3GSM World Congress, Microsoft and Sendo demonstrated a color prototype of Sendos Z100 Multimedia Smartphone, which will eventually run Stinger. The Sendo phone will be in tests this summer in Europe and Asia, possibly for sale by the end of the year.