Is Microsoft waffling on WAP?

Although Microsoft recently joined the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) Forum, an industry group developing the standard for wireless devices that access the Internet, the move was far from an acceptance of the Forum's vision. Microsoft officials have not put to rest fears that it is rapidly moving ahead with its own plans for a competing service based on Windows CE.

Although Microsoft announced earlier this month that it had joined the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) Forum, an industry group developing and promoting the standard for wireless devices that access the Internet, the move was far from an acceptance of the Forum's vision.

As a member of the Forum, Microsoft will now work with other WAP Forum members to accelerate the deployment of wireless mobile devices based on Web standards, Microsoft said in its statement. But Microsoft officials have not put to rest fears that it is rapidly moving ahead with its own plans for a competing service based on Windows CE.

In fact, Microsoft fired the first salvo in the coming war over delivering Web content to mobile devices when it said recently that it was developing a Microsoft Network (MSN) portal for mobile devices accessible through its Pocket Internet Explorer for Windows CE. At the same time, the company invested US$600 million in Nextel Communications Inc. so that the U.S.-based mobile operator could deploy the service. These moves, coupled with comments made by Microsoft officials recently, demonstrate that Microsoft has no intention of letting go of its own vision for how wireless consumer and business users will access the Web.

At the heart of the schism between Microsoft and WAP Forum founding companies such as Ericsson, Nokia and Phone.com (formerly known as Unwired Planet) is the concept of exactly what users of mobile phones and other such wireless connected devices should be able to access. Currently WAP Forum has more than 90 members, including most major makers of mobile telecom equipment and mobile operators.

Bolstering the idea that Microsoft has little choice as to whether or not it adopts WAP are industry estimates that there will be tens of millions of WAP-enabled phones by next year. If Microsoft wants its Office and Exchange products to be accessed by these phones, it will have to make its products able to work with WAP.

Under the WAP forum's plans, mobile operators will offer tailored services for wireless devices and content developers will re-author their Web content in XML (extensible markup language) specifically for these devices. Only those re-authored pages will be available to users of WAP-enabled phones and services. Microsoft insists, however, that with rapid increases in bandwidth and technology advances, users of mobile phones may want to have access to any HTML-based Web page.

WAP supporters, however, counter that users of devices with tiny screens do not want to be able to view Web pages made for PC screens. Also, they say, re-authoring Web content will be relatively simple and profitable for the content developers.

"The user doesn't want to read 200 words just to get to a field that asks for a stock-ticker symbol. Web pages will have to be reformatted by the author to represent a quality user experience. Doing so in the industry standard XML is the proper thing to do," said Ben Linder, vice president of marketing for Phone.com and a member of the WAP Forum marketing committee.

If Microsoft is right, however, that advances in bandwidth and computing will make end-to-end HTML Web-browsing from mobile phones practical and easy, then Microsoft might be uniquely placed to offer those services to mobile telecom providers, since it is forging ahead with developing products and services for browsing any Web page from mobile phones and other handheld devices.

The battle at its core is really about Microsoft's desire to see Windows CE being used on mobile phones. If Microsoft's gamble pays off, and users and service providers do want full Web browsing, then Microsoft may be among the only options available for applications.

"We joined WAP (Forum) after thinking a lot about the implications for ourselves, our product development and our customers," said Georges Nahon, who heads up Microsoft's Internet business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. "We think there is an interest from our customers for WAP, and depending on the end user device, there is a also an interest in an end-to-end HTML."

So, while Microsoft will participate in the WAP Forum, and will make the second release of its Pocket Internet Explorer WAP-compliant, confirmed Nahon, Microsoft will continue to develop non-WAP products too. "At the end of the day, what matters is what customers want: if they want back-end solutions for mail that support WAP, then that's fine ... if they want an HTML microbrowser, then they will get it," said Nahon.

Some WAP members see Microsoft's end-to-end HTML campaign as futile. "They could get phone operators to request it (if they invest enough money in the operators) ... but they can't buy everybody," said Skip Bryan, director, technology market for Ericsson and Ericsson's representative to the WAP Forum. "I think what they will find is there will be a lot of sources that are WAP and they will find they aren't getting a lot of interest (in end-to-end HTML)," predicted Bryan.

Some members of the WAP Forum have not been surprised by Microsoft's acceptance of WAP on the one hand, while it continues to criticise it on the other. "They didn't like WAP from the beginning because they couldn't control it. Microsoft is allergic to any open effort that they cannot control," suggested one WAP Forum member who asked not to be identified.

But one observer holds a different view.

Microsoft is wisely hedging its bets, said Robert Pratten a telecommunications consultant for Schema in London. Microsoft's objective, said Pratten, is "Windows wall-to-wall," but if leading mobile phone makers, such as Nokia and Ericsson, thought Windows CE was appropriate for mobile phones, they would use it. Instead, Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola Inc. joined with the U.K.'s Psion Ltd. to develop Psion's Epoc operating system for handheld personal digital assistants and smart phones.

With the kind of industry-wide support that WAP has garnered, said Pratten, "Microsoft cannot afford to be left out in the cold if leading mobile producers are making all their phones with WAP." Microsoft is new to the field, and as much as it would like to go its own way, it cannot really afford to, said Pratten.

Microsoft's Naho points to the same parallel between Microsoft's strategy with regard to set-top boxes and mobile phones that others have noted. "We have this vision for any kind of network ... for set-top boxes too. There is no need for a specific markup language for television," explained Nahon.

The new media will only succeed, said Nahon, if the existing Web content is leveraged. "We think it's going to be hard to convince content developers to re-author their content."

Of course, the other parallel could be the investment by Microsoft into cable providers to encourage them to adopt its WebTV set-top boxes over competition. Will Microsoft make a series of investments into mobile operators soon?

Microsoft hasn't invested any money in any operators, yet, said Nahon, and points to the investments made by Microsoft in Nextel and Sendit AB as being investments that will help advance the technology. Microsoft bought the Swedish GSM company, Sendit, for about US$127 earlier in May. It is not, he said, investing in operators as a way to force their technology on them. "We put money into these companies as it relates to offering services ... we want to be in the provision of mobile content services," said Nahon.

Microsoft's business strategy is more complex, however, as it wants to sell software and services to providers and end users, including users of mobile phones, lap-top computers and handheld PCs, said Nahon. In addition to Windows CE, Microsoft also wants to sell back-end software including Exchange, SQL server databases, Windows NT and Microsoft Commercial Internet System, said Nahon. Microsoft is also heavily invested in online services and would like to see users of mobile phones and connected handhelds accessing those online services, he said.

While Nahon cannot point to a single operator that has plans to deploy end-to-end HTML browsing from mobile phones, Nahon said that neither can the WAP camp point to any services, currently in operation, and challenged WAP supporters to name even one operator who was currently running a WAP service.

"If people are beginning to say 'I want to be able to access any Web page' with their handheld devices, with their mobile phones ... we have to be there for the right solution for the customers," he said.

During the past year, many European telcos have announced plans to trial or offer services based on WAP, including France Telecom SA, Telecom Italia SpA and Deutsche Telekom AG.

While Microsoft is pursuing a divided strategy, it ultimately has little choice but to make its products and services WAP compliant for the immediate future, given the breadth of support for WAP, suggested many familiar with the situation. Whatever services emerge from the Nextel investment, for instance, will support WAP, said Linder of Phone.com. "Nextel is using Phone.com microbrowser and our server in its network and that will support WAP's WML. So, in fact, the MSN service will be a WAP-compliant service," said Linder. "Nextel is a member of the WAP Forum," he added.

Others think Microsoft will eventually give up its non-WAP strategy for mobile phones and hand held devices. "They've attempted their own approach. We have a lot of momentum around WAP and that should make them interested," said Bryan of Ericsson.

The WAP Forum, based in Mountain View, California, can be reached at +1-650-949-6760 or http://www.wapforum.com/. Microsoft, based in Redmond, Washington, can be reached at +1-425-882-8080, or on the World Wide Web at http://www.microsoft.com/.

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