Microsoft Surprises with Mobile Information Server

MicrosoftCorp.’s .NET strategy lays out a vision of an end-to-end Windows solutionextending from high-end data centers to the smallest network-enabled devices.Today, Microsoft’s ( product line lacks a tool for sendinginformation to the edge of the network, but the Mobile Information Server mayclose the gap by enabling Windows servers to send information to wirelessphones.

Microsoftplans to launch the server early next year, and start to supportedge-of-network devices -- cell phones, PDAs, and the like -- on Windows-basedinfrastructure. Although Microsoft has made forays into the handheld space, theinitial release will support only Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) phones.

Theinformation technology world has changed with the widespread adoption ofedge-of-network devices. ”It’s expanded beyond just PCs -- it’s become mobile,too,” says Scott Gode, group product manager at Microsoft Corp. Microsoftintends to expand its reach into this non-PC market.

“This[product] provides the back-end server piece for mobile applications,” Godesays. Mobile Information Server offers two areas of core functionality: e-mailand Web browsing.

Microsoftintends to offer users the ability to access Exchange 2000-based e-mail viaWAP-enabled phones. The server product creates a middle layer for movinge-mail, contact, and calendar data out to phones. In addition, the packagedetermines whether the type is appropriate for wireless communications. Forexample, PowerPoint documents are bandwidth intensive and awkward on a cellphone, so Mobile Information Server leaves them out.

MobileInformation Server similarly adapts Web-based content for wireless browsing.Since high-resolution graphics, fancy fonts, or multimedia are inappropriatefor the chunky LCD screens, the package converts standard Web documents intoWireless Markup Language (WML) making them easily accessible on cell phones.

“We’releveraging the existing microbrowser,” Gode says. Microsoft is not creating anynew code for the devices. Instead, it is depending on the phones to provide thefront end for accessing content. Microsoft has struck a deal with phone vendorTelefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson (, hinting that a more Windowsy interfacemay come.

Gode saysMicrosoft plans to support other protocols and markup languages in the future,but has no clear roadmap for future releases. “It’s pretty hard to say when thev2 release will come out,” he says. Microsoft plans to follow the market inedge-of-network devices and solicit user feedback to determine which devices tosupport.

Ken Dulaney,vice president of mobile computing at GartnerGroup Inc. (, says Microsoft’s decision to support onlyWAP is a bit of a disappointment. “They should have shown some of the otherdevices,” he says.

SinceMicrosoft actively pursues the handheld computing space with its PocketPC andWindows CE products, Dulaney believes handhelds would be a logical market forMicrosoft. He points specifically to the limitations of the ActiveSync softwarefor linking handhelds to the network. Users currently have to install thesoftware on a desktop and transfer files from the desktop to the PDA.“ActiveSync should be glued into the [wireless] framework,” he says.

Dulaney hasdoubts about what role Microsoft can play in edge-of-network devices.“Microsoft is late in announcing the product,” he says, noting that there areabout 50 companies developing or shipping similar products.

Dulaneysees two roles that Microsoft could play in offering wireless infrastructure:an overarching framework for supporting wireless devices or plug-ins enablingMicrosoft products such as Exchange to be integrated into third-partyframeworks.

Althoughthe .NET strategy suggests that Microsoft’s goal is to provide the overallframework for wireless data, Dulaney believes Microsoft will fare better in thewireless market if it first pursues the plug-in strategy.

First,Microsoft may face an uphill battle in adoption if they step on the toes ofexisting framework vendors such as iconverse Inc. ( and Brience Inc. ( In addition, heavy hitters such as IBMCorp. ( and Oracle Corp. ( have introduced wireless frameworks.

Dulaneybelieves Mobile Information Server is being developed in reaction to thepartnerships Microsoft made with carriers such as Verizon Communications Inc. ( and phone manufacturers like Ericsson --as a transition product before a comprehensive edge-of-network server isreleased. “This is to support many of their joint announcements,” he says.

Microsoftplans to release two flavors of Mobile Information Server: one for enterprisesinterested in intranets and Outlook on phones, and one for carriers to providefunctionality to consumers. Gode expects enterprises to adopt the server beforethere is widespread carrier adoption.

Dulaneybelieves Datacenter Server offers new opportunities and stability, but phonecompanies that need machines with proven stability are likely to stick withplatforms like IBM’s AS/390, despite the stability claims of Datacenter. Microsoft,he says, is more interested in carrier adoption of application, however. “TheMicrosoft carrier battle is a battle to get Exchange in the carrier,” he says.

Althoughsupport for edge-of-network devices may be a key component for the .NETstrategy, Mobile Information Server may not be that critical. “[MobileInformation Server’s] success doesn’t matter to .NET,” Dulaney says. Ifanything, he believes that it will be a learning experience for Microsoft: “Ifit fails, it doesn’t mean the architecture won’t reappear in .NET under adifferent name,” he says.