Mobile Efforts Stumbling

VP quits as Microsoft struggles with platform, partnerships, big enterprise wireless plan.

Microsoft Corp.s head wireless executive is leaving his job, and it is certainly not because he finished it.

Paul Gross, senior vice president for the Mobility Group, wants to spend more time with his family, according to company officials. But sources close to the situation report that Gross was encouraged to leave because various initiatives in the wireless division havent taken off as quickly as they should have.

The much-touted smart-phone platform, code-named Stinger, has yet to appear. Partnerships with Ericsson AB have yet to produce results in the United States. And the Redmond, Wash., companys big wireless push in the enterprise, MIS (Mobile Information 2001 Server), has disappointed many wireless customers.

Gross, who will leave Microsoft July 6, joined the company in 1996. Previously, he was senior vice president of research and development at Borland International Inc., which makes development tools. Borland sued Microsoft in 1996, citing illegal recruiting tactics in wooing Gross and other employees. The suit was settled later that year.

Gross entered Microsoft as the senior vice president of the Developer Tools Division and went on to become senior vice president of the former Collaboration & Mobility Group before taking the helm and the hot seat at the Mobility Group.

Customers said that group has produced more promise than product to date.

"I think Stinger is everybodys new lust object after almost a year of teasing people with the phone," said Jorge Abellas-Martin, CIO at Arnold Worldwide, in Boston, an eWeek Corporate Partner.

Gross was largely in charge of revamping the companys wireless efforts to focus more directly on enterprise customers and carriers. MIS was to be the key to this push, but it took a long time to talk carriers and enterprises into adopting it, and its initial iteration does not live up to its initial promises.

Also known under the code name Airstream, MIS is wireless middleware that is supposed to provide access to myriad corporate applications from myriad devices. Microsoft announced general availability of the software last week at the TechEd conference in Atlanta but has been marketing the platform to potential customers for more than a year. There are two versions, one for carriers and one for enterprise customers.

On the carrier side, Vodafone AirTouch plc. plans to offer hosted enterprise services, called Vodafone OfficeLive, that run on MIS. AT&T Wireless Services and Verizon Wireless plan to run pilots of MIS later this year. But British Telecommunications plc., the first company to announce initial support for MIS, no longer plans to use it.

MIS in its initial release supports only WAP (Wireless Application Protocol). And it provides access only to Microsoft applications. Critics say it appears to be little more than a WAP gateway for Exchange in a market already filled with WAP gateways.

Granted, this is Version 1.0, and Microsoft has promised a more extensible version in the future. MIS eventually will support Pocket PC and Palm OS devices, among other wireless platforms, said Scott Gode, director of the Mobility Group.

Access to applications beyond Exchange is "months, not years away," said Scott Carlin, principal of IBM Global Services Microsoft Services Team, in Denver.

But some potential customers are worried about the lack of support in the first version.

"Back in March, they were talking about Mobile Information Server and how it would be agnostic and have connections for Lotus [Development Corp.] Domino and Palm," said Fran Rabuck, practice leader for mobile technology at Alliance Consulting and an eWeek Corporate Partner, in Philadelphia. "Now they tell us Microsoft has built the core platform, and its business partners will supply the add-ons. But I havent seen the commitments. Whos going to do Palm? Whos going to do Oracle? Theres uncertainty. I would have liked to see this at rollout."

Theres the added issue that Microsoft is hardly the first company to come up with the idea of wireless-access middleware. In fact, Microsoft and Qualcomm Inc. two years ago launched a company called Wireless Knowledge Inc., whose Workstyle Server and subsequent Anystyle Server did basically the same thing. WK went through similar iterations—first targeting carriers and then switching focus to the enterprise when it was clear that carriers were slow to adopt the product.

Microsoft continues to insist that WK will serve only to help MIS, not compete against it. "Our exact relationship will be evolutionary, but WK will be developing applications for the MIS platform," Gode said. As a 50 percent shareholder in WK, Microsoft could, if it decided it was necessary to protect the platform, instruct WK not to work further on any given project, Gode added. WK officials continue to insist that the San Diego company is its own entity.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is under the gun to make more of a name for itself with client-side software, and it has been several months since there was any real innovation in that space.

The long-awaited Stinger cell phone operating system is still long-awaited. Gode said that carriers have been preoccupied trying to roll out a network infrastructure that will support new devices and that the delay lies not with Stinger but with the carriers. But the result is the same: no phones yet. The next version of Windows CE, code-named Talisker, will not appear until later this year.

Plans for future management are vague. Gross could be replaced internally, from the outside "or maybe not at all," Gode said.