Microsoft advances wireless e-mail plan

Microsoft extended its reach into wireless push e-mail services last week, announcing a group of deals with mobile network operators and handheld device makers that agreed to support its Direct Push technology.

Four network carriers said that they will provide users of devices running Windows Mobile 5.0 with free upgrades to Microsoft's Messaging and Security Feature Pack (MSFP), which includes the Direct Push functionality. Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard and three other hardware vendors unveiled Windows Mobile-based handhelds that have Direct Push built into them. A fifth said it plans to roll out similar devices in the second quarter.

Reacting to the announcements, which were made at the 3GSM World Congress 2006 in Barcelona, Spain, several users of Research In Motion's BlackBerry service said they welcome the progress that Microsoft has made in wireless e-mail, especially in light of NTP's ongoing patent lawsuit against RIM.

But some users and analysts said that Windows Mobile needs to be improved in order to become more widely adopted. For example, there are concerns that the mobile operating system isn't user-friendly and that upgrading to the MSFP won't be easy.

Viable alternative?

John Halamka, CIO at CareGroup Healthcare System in Boston, said he tested a Palm Treo 700w running Windows Mobile but found it lacking compared with the BlackBerry devices that he and 500 other CareGroup workers use.

"Direct Push is good, but my experience with all Microsoft mobile technologies is that they are not as easy to use as BlackBerry," Halamka said.

But Frank Gillman, director of technology at law firm Allen Matkins Leck Gamble & Mallory in Los Angeles, said that he found Microsoft's advances in wireless e-mail to be an encouraging sign.

"Microsoft's entry into any technology arena ought to seriously scare competitors in that space," said Gillman, who supports 220 attorneys and legal staffers who use BlackBerry devices. "Companies heavily invested in the Microsoft Exchange environment will see [Direct Push] as a viable alternative for wireless e-mail." He included Allen Matkins in that group of users.

John Starkweather, group product manager at Microsoft, said in a telephone interview from Spain that the advent of wireless e-mail via Exchange Server 2003 Service Pack 2 and devices running Windows Mobile 5.0 could vastly increase access to the technology for end users.

There are potentially tens of millions of business users who could take advantage of Direct Push, compared with 8 million to 10 million who are using services from RIM, Good Technology and other vendors, Starkweather said.

A total of about 100 network operators currently support Direct Push, he added. Among the four that announced free upgrades to the MSFP software last week is one of the top three U.S. carriers, Cingular Wireless, as well as T-Mobile International, which is a distant fourth in the U.S. but much bigger in other countries.

Todd Kort, an analyst at Gartner , said he thinks Microsoft's foray into wireless e-mail with Direct Push will ultimately be successful. "But Microsoft's track record with 1.0 releases has been uninspiring, and therefore I believe it will take time for Microsoft to improve their product to the point where many users begin switching to it," Kort said.

Microsoft and its partners are undoubtedly trying to take advantage of RIM's legal woes, said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. But he noted that Microsoft faces its own patent infringement lawsuit from Visto over Direct Push. The case, filed in December in U.S. District Court in Texas, involves three Visto patents. Microsoft has declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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