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MS scores Ericsson deal over wireless browser, BackOffice

But check the fine print - it's more a move against Nokia than Symbian

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Microsoft at last scored a major victory in the wireless market today, with the announcement of a joint venture company with Symbian co-founder Ericsson.

Panic at the news sent Psion shares spinning downwards in London, but wiser counsel seems to have prevailed later - the stock started rising again, sensibly, because when you think about it for a couple of nanoseconds the deal is something that can be seen as a victory for Symbian, and hence for Psion. Sell Nokia, perhaps.

The MS-Ericsson deal involves Ericsson putting Microsoft's Mobile Explorer microbrowser (announced today) on its feature phones and smart phones, and for the two companies to combine their efforts at the back end: "Microsoft and Ericsson," it says here, "will work collaboratively to develop new solutions that seamlessly connect enterprise e-mail with public wireless e-mail services, based on Microsoft Exchange Server and Ericsson wireless infrastructure products.

The company will also use the Microsoft messaging platform to optimise client software, access technologies and applications." Unpick that and you'll note first that the new partners aren't saying anything about underlying operating systems for the handsets, so presuming Ericsson will carry on using Symbian's EPOC as its underlying OS, the deal doesn't get Microsoft significantly further in this direction.

Symbian certainly seems to think this is the case - a spokesman The Register talked to earlier said the company wasn't at all worried about which browser ran on top of its OS (and had Microsoft taken this view some years back, how different history would have been). The other important aspect of the deal for Microsoft is that it has managed to get a major infrastructure provider to vote for the MS BackOffice strategy. This, you'll recall, is the one we prepared earlier with Qualcomm (via WirelessKnowledge). Ericsson is a major player in this field though, so at last MS has a deal with a company with some heft.

But note the Ericsson angle to this aspect of the jv. Ancestral enemy Nokia has back office apps and systems of its own to sell, and would fall about laughing (quite possibly has, in previous summits) at the suggestion it should use MS ones. Ericsson hasn't, so probably thought the MS deal was worth doing - we'll no doubt see how effective MS apps are in this field over the next couple of years. Also noteworthy is the ownership of the jv.

At the moment Ericsson is only saying it will hold the majority, but this gives us some clues about the relative desperation of the participants. Ericsson will also be contributing its WAP stack, making the browser dual mode HTML and WAP, and the two say "Ericsson and Microsoft will promote the convergence of WAP and Internet standards to XML." This gives us some indicators as to where the battle lines lie.

Nokia is pushing WAP heavily, whereas Microsoft hasn't been terribly keen. The Microsoft view (and it's actually a sustainable one) is that WAP and the associated specialist engineering of code and sites is something of a blind alley. So why, thinks MS, can't we just barrel along in the direction of broadband wireless?

Ericsson, on the other hand, is the major moving spirit behind GPRS, which will make wireless Internet move at a reasonable lick when it starts to get deployed next year. Ericsson is also the originator of Bluetooth, whose SIG Microsoft joined recently. We see a quid pro quo here, even before noting the wonderfully vague Bluetooth reference in today's announcement:

"Microsoft and Ericsson will work together and with other Promoters in the Bluetooth SIG to evolve the technology to support future scenarios. In addition to working together to integrate Bluetooth technology into their respective products, Microsoft and Ericsson also have the mutual goal of ensuring a seamless experience for customers of Bluetooth-enabled products."

Bluetooth ain't supposed to be proprietary, nor indeed is XML. But look out for these two trying to put together killer combinations, and as they do, maybe Microsoft will stand a chance of getting CE in there - if it actually cares, of course. ®

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