"The smartphone [software] is going to be released literally any day now," said Roberto Cazzaro, international director at Microsoft's Mobility Division. "It's a question of weeks."
Although Windows Powered Smartphone 2002 is nearly ready to ship, phones based on the software are unlikely to appear for up to six more months, as hardware makers prepare their phones for mass production and mobile operators continue network trials using phones based on the software, Cazzaro said.
Compal Communications unveiled a prototype of its phone at the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes in February, and Sendo demonstrated its first Stinger prototype in February 2001.
But even with the software and hardware for smart phones nearing the point where they are ready to ship, questions remain about whether some carriers are ready to offer services for phones based on Windows Powered Smartphone 2002.
"This is the version 1.0 software. To be honest, I don't even know if the software is good enough for some of the carriers," Cazzaro said.
"We already have been doing extensive tests but at the last minute the carriers can say 'No, no, you need to change this or otherwise we don't want to ship it.'"
Microsoft's Windows Powered Smartphone 2002 software has been close to release for several months, but has been beset by problems with the hardware used in GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) phones.
GPRS is a high-speed upgrade to GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) networks. The upgrade uses packet-switching technology and theoretically allows data transmission at speeds up to 171.2Kbps (bits per second), although available GPRS services don't offer data access at speeds higher than 56K bps.
For example, if there is a problem with the chipset and the power consumption, Microsoft will need to rewrite the software to accommodate that, Cazzaro said. "We have this cycle where the more the hardware was stable, the more we discovered that we needed small changes in software. The more we changed the software, the more the hardware needed to change," he said.
"One of the problems is that we bet Stinger on GPRS a long time ago because we thought you really needed to have GPRS to have a good phone," Cazzaro said. "In hindsight, that was a mistake because GPRS was not really stable until a few months ago."
The focus on producing smart phones for GPRS networks has delayed the launch of these products. "If we decided two years ago to ship on GSM, you would have had Stinger for a long time by now," Cazzaro said.
Indeed, GSM technology is likely adequate for many of the applications that Microsoft has envisioned for smart phones, such as synchronising e-mail, contact and calendar information.
"I can synchronise my e-mail over 9.6Kbps almost as well as I can synchronise it over GPRS," he said. "I can synchronise in three minutes most of my e-mail and [with] GPRS it takes a minute and a half. Realistically, that difference is not going to change my life."
Moreover, applications that use larger amounts of bandwidth also drive up costs for the end user.
"The problem is that bandwidth costs money, so if you have a high-bandwidth application it will probably never be a killer application," he said. "It's not that I don't believe in high speed. The question is what service can you offer that people will be willing to pay for?"
And then there is the question of battery life. Higher bandwidth draws more power from the phone's battery and decreases battery life, Cazzaro said.
Looking ahead, Microsoft plans to release an updated version of the Windows Powered Smartphone software along with an updated version of its Pocket PC software.
Scheduled to ship during the first quarter of 2003, both products will be based on a new Windows CE operating system kernel that will ship at the same time, rather than the Windows CE 3.0 kernel that is used in Windows Powered Smartphone 2002 and Pocket PC 2002, Cazzaro said.