March 22, 1999 4:00 AM PST

Server software key to Microsoft wireless plans

Is the wireless world ready for Redmond?

WirelessKnowledge, the wireless communications joint venture between Microsoft and Qualcomm, isn't promising the Internet unplugged just yet, but the company is easing into the market by ensuring that business customers don't stray far from Microsoft's products.

Because there's currently little demand for data transmitted by wireless devices, WirelessKnowledge is focusing on the tools business customers use most frequently: email, calendars, shared databases, and "to-do" lists, according to company executives. Its first service offering--called Revolv--primarily touts Microsoft's Exchange-based groupware products, which many customers already access using the Outlook client application on their desktop PCs.

In other words, WirelessKnowledge seeks to deliver the software giant's products to business customers using Qualcomm-powered devices. The alliance, formed last November, is another example of Microsoft's expanding focus on bandwidth, and could offer the company another proving ground to show that its software is capable of handling high-end, heavy-volume business applications.

Although the wireless communications industry is touting the virtues of surfing the Internet at high-speeds, transferring files, and eventually video-conferencing without wires, the standards necessary for T1-like speeds are still years away, according to some.

Most current hand-held wireless technologies struggle to deliver data even at speeds of 28.8 kbps (kilobits per second). "Third-generation" standards capable of delivering data at more than 1 mbps (megabits per second) are expected in 2000 or 2001, but until then speed bumps will limit the kinds of services carriers can deliver.

"It takes very little bandwidth to tell you your meeting has changed," said WirelessKnowledge chief executive John Major at a recent industry conference.

WirelessKnowledge vows to support many different technologies in the future. But the venture may have other goals. Microsoft has had trouble penetrating the lucrative telecommunications industry, long dominated by Unix-based operating systems. Now the company hopes it can use the base of customers it already has for its Exchange server to its advantage in its first attempt at entering with wireless communications world.

"All their big new initiatives are server-based," said Pete Peterson, a wireless analyst at Volpe Brown Whelan. "They need the end users to have services and reasons that make them want to access a Microsoft server."

And at the root of Microsoft's Exchange push is an underlying effort to boost its corporate Windows NT operating system--to be called Windows 2000 in an upcoming upgrade.

A go between
WirelessKnowledge will act as a middleman between wireless carriers and customers' mobile devices, be they smart phones, handheld computers, two-way pagers or anything else.

The promise of WirelessKnowledge is that customers--regardless of what type of mobile device or which wireless carrier they use--can receive their corporate information remotely. The carrier partners--including AirTouch Communications, AT&T Wireless Services, Bell Atlantic Mobile, Bell Mobility, BellSouth, GTE Wireless, Sprint PCS, and US West Wireless--will market and sell the co-branded WirelessKnowledge service.

WirelessKnowledge will customize data to ensure that the information is formatted appropriately for each device. For example, on a two-way pager, emails might only show the subject heading. However, on a personal digital assistant (PDA) such as a Windows CE-based device or a PalmPilot, which have larger viewable screens, the full email may be read. The same is true for phones and pagers.

The company is in the process of integrating its carrier partners' networks with a network operating center based in San Diego, California, where WirelessKnowledge is headquartered. The networks are typically connected via frame relay networking technology.

"Carriers like it because this shifts the focus from minutes to what can be done with the phone," according to Major.

Under an ambitious schedule, the first commercial launches of the Revolv service offering were expected in some areas by April, but that date has been delayed until May, according to Tom Clarkson, vice president of marketing for WirelessKnowledge.

Other companies are working on similar wireless data efforts. WirelessKnowledge executives know any lead they may have could be fleeting, but they believe their service will be too easy to pass up.

"You can wait for your business to develop this information on its own, or you can wait until your carrier develops it," Major said. "What we have done is provide an integrated solution for the user."

Giants Cisco Systems and Motorola also are working together to build the infrastructure necessary for high-speed wireless networks. But analysts say the clout of Microsoft carries a lot of cachet, and is likely to bring many developers on board.

"This is not new, but the sizzle of Microsoft makes a difference," said Alan Reiter, president of Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing, a wireless data consulting firm. "This isn't rocket science, but you want to get your email and files wirelessly. Is that so hard? Well, yeah, it has been."

Selling more software
The venture is betting that corporate America is ready to take its information on the road, and that the software giant's ubiquitous products will give many companies a reason to use WirelessKnowledge.

"The industry was headed down a path where there really weren't compelling applications, and what always drives a market is compelling applications that end-users want to buy," Clarkson said.

Microsoft is extending its Windows franchise to the handheld market via its Windows CE operating system and Qualcomm also is putting Microsoft's microbrowser technology into its cellular phones.

The larger plan, according to analysts, is to get businesses to use Microsoft servers. And, if those corporate customers use WirelessKnowledge for wireless connectivity, they'll want to use Windows CE for seamless integration.

"You'll be 'incented' to use Microsoft products across the board because the integration will be easier," Volpe's Peterson said.

Connecting corporate networks to the WirelessKnowledge network allows people to access their business applications while away on travel, and by focusing on the business customer, the venture can glean higher profit margins.

"Microsoft needs this to be in the enterprise," Peterson said. "Traditionally they've played on the desktop, but the desktop is being stripped down."

There is some skepticism in the industry, however, that WirelessKnowledge may not integrate its service with most wireless communications standards.

"There's a concern that they'll give preference to CDMA (code division multiple access) carriers because Qualcomm is the king of CDMA," Reiter said.

But WirelessKnowledge executives said they're willing to support a number of technologies and competing products.

"There's a lot of speculation that if you've got Microsoft and Qualcomm involved, two very aggressive companies, that you're just going to strictly support their products. That's not the case," Clarkson said.

 

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