The availability of Microsoft's push e-mail service last week is the company's latest move to establish Windows Mobile 5.0 as the platform of choice for mobile users.
Interest in Windows Mobile 5.0 has grown steadily, and it now attracts far more developers than any rival mobile operating system. This should improve the likelihood of IT directors being able to buy line-of-business mobile applications for the Microsoft platform. More than 10,000 developers are currently working on applications for Windows Mobile 5.0.
Part of the reason for this developer momentum is Microsoft's programming model. Nick Jones, vice-president at analyst firm Gartner, said, "Every device using Windows Mobile 5.0 has the same interfaces, but that is absolutely not the case with other operating systems, such as Symbian."
According to Microsoft, companies that develop for Windows Mobile will be able to use the same skills they already have for desktop Windows development. Staff with Visual Studio and .net Framework languages, such as C# and Visual Basic, can develop for Windows Mobile.
The launch of Microsoft's .net Compact Framework 2.0 last autumn gave Windows Mobile developers improved managed code application programming interfaces (APIs) to simplify mobile development projects, plus a number of new APIs for Windows Mobile.
Future releases of Windows Mobile are expected to appear annually, with patches and upgrades issued more frequently. Microsoft is committed to ensuring that 95% of applications have backward compatibility on its platform.
Jones said, "One of the great strengths of Windows Mobile is that it has a single owner in Microsoft. Therefore it is a relatively consistent platform, even when devices are produced by different manufacturers. Although it is being forced to support greater diversity of devices, we expect Mobile to remain far more consistent and backward compatible than the Java operating system."
Combined with the Microsoft .net Compact Framework, Gartner believes Windows Mobile 5.0 delivers a platform that offers rich features and good consistency between manufacturers and releases, so is well suited to corporate needs.
The alternative programming environment for mobile applications is Java 2 Platform Micro Edition (J2ME). Gartner has warned enterprise users that J2ME is functionally far weaker than a Windows Mobile platform. This is because it has a big consumer focus, which means it is missing many enterprise features, such as a file system, an embedded database, management and security services, and middleware functions. Also, Gartner pointed out that J2ME, by design, does not support access to device-specific hardware features.
The second drawback is that J2ME is a client-side platform, so it must be combined with server-side products, which may be proprietary. Gartner said users may need to buy server-side products from companies such as IBM or Oracle to provide a more complete enterprise platform.
One of the main alternatives to Windows Mobile 5.0 is Blackberry from Research in Motion, which is based on Java. But the device and the version of Java it runs is severely limited, says Gartner.
Jones said, "RIM is a Java machine, so you can develop J2ME applications for RIM, but it's the brain-damaged version of Java. Also, the RIM device itself is an exceptionally limited piece of hardware."
Companies can now buy devices from Motorola and Nokia that run RIM's operating system on faster processors. Application development for RIM was held up because most of its devices had black and white screens.
The arrival of new Blackberry devices with colour screens and third-party devices with RIM's operating system - Blackberry Connect - increase the potential market for application developers.
RIM organised the first formal meeting of its developer organisation, the Alliance Partner Programme, this month. A total of 274 organisations have joined the programme.
RIM's commercial relations director, Lee Underwood, said, "The kinds of area where we have seen quite a bit of deployment are time and billing in the legal market, data streaming in the financial services market and sales force solutions, such as customer relationship management."
Gartner rates Symbian as the third most important mobile operating system. In a recent Gartner survey, 33% of IT managers and CIOs thought the system was important to their companies' mobile strategies.
Although Symbian is shipped in more mobile phones than any other operating system, most are bought by consumers rather than companies. Symbian lacks a common interface across all devices using the operating system.
The closest Symbian has to a single owner is Nokia. The world's largest handset manufacturer is encouraging application developers to work on Symbian by standardising its handsets using the operating system. Nokia's Series 60 devices use the same implementation of Symbian. More than 25 million Series 60 devices were sold last year.
A developer club called Forum Nokia has been set up to encourage application development on Series 60 devices. More than 400 businesses belong to the club. Some 37% of them are developing corporate applications and 31% are working on personal productivity applications, including e-mail and personal information management.
Some of the businesses developing applications for corporate users pay Nokia for additional support.
Nokia's senior marketing manager for Series 60, Dan Shugrue, said, "They get early access to devices. They get roadmaps for the platform itself. The developers also get marketing initiatives and they might want access to an operator."
Unlike Microsoft and RIM, Nokia has only just launched devices that can be managed remotely by a user's IT department. The manufacturer's E Series of devices will be the first that can be wiped remotely. They will be released to the whole market at the end of March.
While users have the choice between J2ME and Windows Mobile 5.0, there is some degree of cross-platform development. According to Gartner, tools such as AppForge Crossfire allow corporate .net developers to target Symbian platforms, and third-party virtual machines will allow Java developers to target Microsoft platforms.
Windows Mobile v Java 2 Micro Edition
Consider Windows Mobile if:
- You already have Windows API or .net skills
- You want to use Visual Studio and develop in Visual Basic or C#
- You are creating a complex (perhaps thick-client) application that will run only on a Windows Mobile handset or PDA
- Your application needs an embedded small footprint SQL database
- You need access to operating system services, hardware or peripheral drivers
- Rapid application development is important
- You want round-trip integration with PC data, and applications such as Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel
- You need a wide portfolio of device form factors, such as "ruggedised" PDA, executive PDA and smartphone, with a single, consistent operating platform
- You already have Java skills or tools such as Eclipse
- You are developing simple applications for the broadest possible range of handsets and are prepared to sacrifice corporate features for market size
- You are developing a complex PDA application but need to maximise platform portability - by extending to Linux, for example
- You need a better user interface than can be achieved with a thin-client browser application, but want to maximise the range of potential client devices
- You do not need direct access to operating system services, hardware features or device drivers
- The target device gives you no choice, for example when it is a Java-only handset
- You are developing consumer-facing "infotainment" applications
What happened to the Palm OS?
The Palm operating system had the largest share of the corporate market in the 1990s, but now Microsoft and RIM are the main options users have. Palm was rated the least important operating system to enterprise users in the Gartner survey of IT managers. It came behind mobile Linux.
Nick Jones, vice-president at analyst firm Gartner, said, "The operating system is very dated and the replacement to the Palm OS is still up in the air. It's a much less sophisticated and mature operating system than its rivals."
The Palm operating system was replaced with Windows Mobile 5.0 on Palm's own smartphone brand, Treo, last month.