The Big Microsoft News in Cannes is CSF

Opinion: Connected Services Framework enables companies to combine services easily without tweaking them to work together.

There is a widespread failure to understand Microsofts latest announcements, with hysterical focus on Nokias announcement that it is licensing Windows Media player for its phones, some enthusiasm about "Peabody," minor interest in the fact that Nokia is going with Exchange for e-mail, and blank disregard of the apparently boring announcement that Microsoft has released an infrastructure play called CSF or Connected Services Framework.

CSF is Biztalk. Its something Microsoft originally designed so that IT people could link their ERP software to the ERP software of their customers. But it has been steadily catching on inside large corporations as a way of linking one ERP application to another.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read the latest on Biztalk Server 2006.

CSF is easily the most significant announcement Microsoft has made at the 3GSM World Congress this week in Cannes, France—not just for 3GSM, but for anybody who is developing value-add services for communications. Its yet another "abstraction layer" product, but where so darn many of these are just an attempt to horn in on what handset makers are doing, this one is radically new.

Microsoft really isnt giving much away. Its announcement buries this story near the bottom of a five-subject press release, and says, almost as if they didnt want anybody to get excited: "Leading telecommunications operators BT, Bell Canada and Celcom Malaysia have selected the Microsoft Connected Services Framework to facilitate the delivery of services to their subscribers."

That means absolutely nothing, and unless someone took you to one side and said: "Heres what its all about," youd yawn, and pass on. Dont.

I was lucky: Andrew Steven, director of solution sales, EMEA, for Microsoft, took me to one side before the show. And this isnt a "mobile story," nor is it necessarily one the mobile users will ever need to know about. But they will be basing their purchase decisions on whether their carrier does or doesnt use it within three years.

What CSF does is to create an abstraction layer between the business functions and the new services that the operator wants to deliver. What that means is that you build all your services on top of this, and they can talk to each other: "So you do the integration between back ends and these new services once, then drop new services in very quickly," said Steven.

Its an API that does what Biztalk does: It combines services, as Steven explains it: "If you built a service and I build one, and Helen builds one, and then someone called Joe comes along and says, I could build a service using these three components, then normally, he has to understand how our services work. With CSF, Joe could do that, without worrying about how our services work."

As long as all of them work to a common standard, which CSF is intended to provide, theyll all work together. More to the point, perhaps, theyll be ready for market quickly—far more quickly than a competitor could manage without CSF.

"So it fosters innovation," Steven said. "Its there to make it easy to develop new services really quickly and deliver them quickly, without worrying about how the back end is going."

Heres a real-world example: Take a ring tone download service; nice simple operator scenario. Suppose your operator says: "I want to drive additional revenue; I want to offer that user the chance to purchase the music track. I can download that 2-meg file pretty quickly over 3G; Ill charge $3 for that. And if they like that, Ill maybe offer them the album for $12, and send that via DSL. By the time they get home, it will be waiting for them."

But its likely the ring tone provider wont be the same provider who offers the single download—and they certainly wont be the same one that does the album download over DSL. So you would have to understand all three provisioning systems, analyze them, and integrate them and then worry about back-end billing services and links to fixed line.

"A whole bunch of service delivery platform people do typical abstraction layers out there," said Steven. "But nobody has built something that lets you build rich services by combining them."

By comparison, Microsofts deal with Nokia is trivial. Nokia announced (last week) that it was signing with Real Networks for its music player. Well, duh, it has to, because theres a lot of Real Media out there. This week, it announces Windows Media. Well, duh, theres a lot of WMV and WMA stuff out there. And yet this absolutely inevitable and obvious licensing deal has been shrieked about as if it signified a split between Nokia and its base OS.

And of course, the deal with Nokia and Exchange is interesting—but again, Symbian, which doesnt have its own desktop PIM program, was always under pressure to find a way of making sync work. Thats really all this does. No more phones that take a sysadmin expert to make them talk to your PC; just link out of the box to Exchange. Rocket science for you and me, perhaps, but just a job for Nokia and Microsoft.

As for Peabody, well, its a way of expanding the number of people who can do Windows Mobile phones. Right now, if you dont like the Motorola design (or live somewhere which isnt the USA) and dont like an HTC design, there really arent that many Windows phones—hardware—available. Ive seen the "Typhoon" design from HTC in so darn many colours and logos; Ive seen the "Magician" rebadged, and Ive seen the XDA rebadged; all HTC products.

Peabody gives network operators the opportunity to go to Flextronics and buy something else. A quick and dirty option, perhaps, but its a full Windows Mobile hardware implementation, and its up to the operator how many features it can build into software. Nice, but unimportant in comparison to CFS.

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