Microsoft aims to come back fighting

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In 2002, Microsoft set out to conquer the smartphone. But three years on, Symbian software is still the operating system of choice for business smartphones. Canalys, the market researcher, estimates that 77 per cent of smartphones sold in the third quarter were Symbian-powered; Microsoft’s share was a distant 18 per cent.

But now Microsoft is giving it another go. In May, the company announced Windows Mobile 5.0, aimed at clawing market share away from Symbian.

Some of the new software code integrates technologies that have emerged since the previous operating system was released in 2003, including miniature hard drives, WiFi and 3G. Mobile versions of Microsoft applications such as Media Player, MSN Messenger and Office have also been improved.

More significantly, many features added in Windows Mobile 5.0 are based on feedback from the companies that make and sell smartphones. The result is a flexible OS that allows more device design freedom and software customisation. This will likely increase the number of Windows-driven devices and drive sales.

But what may push Microsoft decisively ahead of the competition is the way Windows Mobile 5.0 integrates with existing enterprise IT systems, where Microsoft is an undisputed heavyweight.

“Businesses want to manage their mobile devices like they do desktop systems,” says Scott Horn, general manager for Microsoft’s Mobile and Embedded Devices Division. “This is a sea change for the industry. Today, operators decide what goes on devices, but now businesses want to control this,” he adds.

By year-end, Microsoft will release its Messaging and Security Feature Pack for Exchange 2003 servers and Windows Mobile 5.0 devices. The free software upgrade will allow IT managers to remotely manage and secure Windows-based smartphones. Microsoft claims that there are 120 million Exchange server users worldwide.

The feature pack will also “push” Outlook content such as e-mail, calendar data and contact information over the air to mobile devices. “Why do I have to pay for a separate e-mail server and separate mobile device?” asks Mr Horn, in reference to Research in Motion’s stand-alone, proprietary Blackberry Enterprise Server. Microsoft claims that new compression of Outlook data will reduce wireless bandwidth requirements by 30-50 per cent.

Application developers will also benefit from the integration of Windows Mobile 5.0 with the latest versions of Microsoft Visual Studio and SQL Server. “Both will assist the development of mobile enterprise applications. No rival mobile OS can boast such development advantages,” explains Ovum analyst Tony Cripps.

Microsoft’s enterprise dominance is why Palm chose Windows Mobile 5.0 over its own operating system for the new Treo smartphone. “A large majority of businesses around the world use a Microsoft-based infrastructure across their IT assets. And many of those companies simply aren’t open to products that use another OS,” Palm chief executive Ed Colligan recently told application developers.

End users will benefit from the redesigned Outlook interfaces. “A lot work went into these to make them cleaner, more actionable,” says Chris Hill, group product manager for Microsoft MED.

Similarly, the Mobile Office suite was reworked. The new version introduces Mobile PowerPoint and enhances the editing features for Word and Excel files. Files no longer lose formatting when transferred between phone and PC. “It is difficult to see how competitors can ever hope to catch up with Microsoft, the global leader in office software, when it comes to extending document functionality to a handset,” comments wireless analyst Emma McClune at Current Analysis.

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