Microsoft touts smart phones, outlines wireless plans

Serving mobile users has become "job one" at Microsoft., according to CEO Steve Ballmer, who outlined a broad strategy to serve enterprises and consumers with new mobile products and services, including the company's Stinger smart phone.

Ballmer, speaking at the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association's annual conference, said computer users have adopted a "mobile data lifestyle," which requires a focus on delivering the same content to portable devices and desktops.

Stinger phones, expected to hit the market later this year, will allow the 68 million enterprise users of Microsoft Outlook e-mail software to access messages from behind a corporate firewall as easily as from their desktops, Ballmer said.

Microsoft expects its hardware partners to start offering phones, based on Stinger software the company unveiled last year, to be on sale by the end of the year in retail outlets in the US, he said. Microsoft has just signed a deal with High Tech Computer in Taiwan to develop and market Stinger phones, and has already signed agreements with Samsung Electronics in Korea, Mitsubishi Electric in Japan and Sendo in Birmingham, England.

Mitsubishi will also start selling phones equipped with Microsoft Mobile Explorer for use on US cell phone networks operating on the Global System for Mobile (GSM) communications protocol in the first quarter of next year, Ballmer said.

Mitsubishi currently sells GSM phones with Mobile Explorer in Europe, where the phones operate in different frequency bands than US networks. Mobile Explorer supports a wide range of wireless interfaces and protocols, including Wireless Application Protocol, iMode and HTML, which Ballmer called "absolutely critical to delivering true wireless Internet services to our customers."

Microsoft also introduced a new mobile pager developed by Motorola in Schaumberg Ill. The device has a form factor much like the Blackberry pager sold by Research In Motion (RIM) in Waterloo, Ontario, and is capable of accessing MSN Messenger and MSN Hotmail services.

Ballmer said these new products and services tie in with the company's .Net strategy to allow easy exchange of information from one kind of device and connection -- wired or wireless -- to another. Three to five years from now, the distinctions between the wired and wireless Internet will disappear, Ballmer predicted.

"It's all one Internet," he said. "We want [information] to flow seamlessly from one service mode to another."

Bob Egan, an analyst at Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn., said Microsoft has taken a very "aggressive stance" in the mobile and wireless arena because of competition ranging from pager companies such as RIM to personal digital assistant manufacturers such as Palm in Santa Clara, Calif., and other smart phone companies such as Symbian Technologies in London. Kyocera in Korea recently introduced a smart phone based on the Palm OS, while Symbian, which has a number of deals with phone manufacturers, announced at the CeBit conference in Germany this week several deals with enterprise mobile software developers, including Aether Systems in Owings Mills, Md.

"This is an enterprise fight and it's Microsoft's to lose," said Egan

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