Microsoft's mobile gamble

Microsoft targets the corporate mobile market with the launch of Pocket PC 2002. Ian Murphy reports

Microsoft targets the corporate mobile market with the launch of Pocket PC 2002. Ian Murphy reports

At the launch of its latest operating system for handheld devices, Pocket PC 2002, Microsoft unveiled a strategy with the emphasis placed very firmly on the business sector. It also unveiled some specific hardware requirements for suppliers wishing to build devices using its operating systems. The company hopes to ride out the anger of users whose equipment will no longer be directly supported by operating system upgrades.

One of the biggest problems that Microsoft faces is the prospect of existing owners of Casio and Hewlett-Packard PDAs having to throw their devices away because they cannot be upgraded. The reason is that the Pocket PC team has decided to standardise on a small number of processors from ARM and to insist that the operating system is stored within flash memory. Compaq decided to build around ARM processors last year and put the entire operating system in flash to support future upgrades. Existing owners of Compaq's iPaq devices will be able to purchase an upgrade CD for Pocket PC 2002.

The Microsoft Pocket PC team feel that standardising on a single processor will simplify the development of software for the Pocket PC and make it easier for manufacturers to enter this hardware market. The use of flash memory has another key advantage and one that will appeal to corporate support teams. Microsoft has released an upgrade process for Pocket PC 2002 and future versions that uses a mechanism known as XIP (Exchange In Place).

This works by splitting the operating system into a number of distinct sections. When upgrades are applied, each section is upgraded before the existing code is deleted, with the result that upgrades can be planned and managed by OEMs and support teams. As yet, Microsoft has not shown the tools that will be available to do this but extensions to the existing Microsoft Update, Systems Management Server and Microsoft Operations Manager are expected.

The hardware specifications for Pocket PC 2002 are very high, with a 32-bit processor running at 100MHz (150-200MHz recommended for multimedia), 16Mbytes of memory (32Mbytes recommended) and 16Mbytes of onboard flash memory for Pocket PC and 24Mbytes for wireless devices. Battery life has also been an issue and Microsoft has set targets of 15 hours use for greyscale devices and eight hours for colour devices. Wireless devices must supply over 100 hours of standby with three hours talk-time.

In recognition of the problems faced by users when they are away from home and unable to effectively charge their devices, Microsoft has set a requirement that once the battery on the device has reached the automatic low power shutdown point, the memory contents must be maintained for a minimum of 72 hours.

Pocket PC 2002 boasts a range of new features that shows Microsoft has recognised the strength of Palm. For those who use their PDA for e-mail and contact information, the big news is that they no longer need to synchronise with their desktop as Outlook 2002 on the Pocket PC will now synchronise directly with an Exchange server. Previously, this could only be done through third-party tools.

Pocket PC 2002 has the ability to synchronise multiple e-mail folders, so those who use the rules option within Outlook and Exchange to organise their incoming mail can download it already sorted. Another feature that has been added is support for HTML e-mail, which is becoming increasingly popular with both corporate e-mail administrators and ISPs.

One of the major concerns for corporate IT security teams is the lack of security on mobile devices. While Certicom has taken a major slice of the mobile security market, suppliers have been slow to react. Microsoft has added virtual private network support to Pocket PC 2002 and this should allay security concerns and increase the use of mobile devices.

Support for stronger passwords has also been introduced, allowing alpha- numeric passwords to be used. Connection manager also allows the user to have multiple profiles. Further support for corporate environments is provided by Microsoft's Terminal Services client, which allows a user access to any application that has been made available to any thin client. From a mobile perspective, this works for both corporate IT departments and for ASPs.

Microsoft has also recognised that it had a problem with USB drivers for the Pocket PC and, although this appeared to be primarily a Compaq iPaq problem, it has issued an updated version of Activesync, version 3.5.

Unfortunately, this version introduces a significant problem for any site using Terminal Services as it will not allow a handheld device attached to a client device to use port redirection for synchronisation. This will not only affect sites that use Terminal Services as their thin-client solution but will also impact schools, universities and application service providers who rely on Terminal Services to offer access to e-mail.

For developers, Microsoft will be announcing the availability of a beta version of the .net Compact Framework at its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles later this month. This is a version of the .net e-commerce platform specifically targeting the embedded and mobile space. At the same time, Microsoft will be releasing the alpha version of Hailstorm, now known as .net My Services, which is designed to open up Web services to individuals, especially through mobile devices.

Microsoft enters the cell phone market
Microsoft has started to reveal more information about its operating system for cell phones, currently known as Stinger. The company is distinguishing between Pocket PCs with telephony and wireless capabilities and phones by providing a subset of Pocket PC features. This is Stinger, not a PDA phone but a phone PDA - which, according to Microsoft, is different from an integrated wireless Pocket PC. The difference is subtle but Microsoft believes it can clarify this over time so that corporate users will understand.

Stinger is seen by Microsoft as a direct competitor for the current Symbian operating system used by Ericsson and Nokia. One of the key components to making this strategy work is the incorporation of Microsoft's Cellcore APIs, which will support tools to allow developers to integrate Stinger with the major mobile telephony standards.

To back up Stinger and Cellcore, Microsoft has also announced the availability of the next version of its Mobile Information Server (MIS) which allows corporate IT departments to add support for mobile devices in their communications strategy. MIS contains the new Server Activesync application to allow a mobile device to synchronise e-mail, calendar and contact information directly with an Exchange server.

As with version 1.0, MIS 2.0 will be available in a corporate and a carrier version and Microsoft believes that the extra security components offered through the carrier version will allow operators to build new business services to sell to corporate customers. Ostensibly, Microsoft has little competition in this space but BT's adoption of Research In Motion's Blackberry always-on e-mail devices and expected PDA phone releases from Palm and Handspring, which are also being targeted as carrier products, will increase contention for this market space.

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