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Does MS care about WinCE, or is the browser the platform?

If it's the mobile market, we're OS-agnostic, apparently...

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The various Microsoft and Ericsson participants in the announcement of this week's mobile market alliance were at some pains - Ericsson reps in particular - to point out that it did not cover Windows CE, and did not affect Ericsson's plans for Symbian. Habitual Microsoft watchers however noted MS president Steve Ballmer's statement that the new double act provided "a good forum for discussion of future opportunities." And we know what kind of future opportunities Steve has in mind, don't we? Well, not necessarily. A bit of reading between the lines of the various conference calls that have taken place over the past couple of days, plus a bit of background, suggests that maybe Microsoft doesn't care that much about CE at all, and that maybe, with exquisite irony, it's stealing a leaf out of Netscape's book, and giving the middleware concept a jolly good blurring for luck. Current perceptions of Microsoft's intentions are generally based on the "Windows Everywhere" strategy, and as far as CE is concerned that means most analysts take the view that Microsoft's ultimate objective is to get CE accepted in the mobile, device, appliance and TV markets as a standard platform of equivalent ubiquity to Windows in the PC market. Apply this view to the Ericsson deal and the process goes something like this: Ericsson's adoption of Microsoft's Mobile Explorer microbrowser plus its participation in a joint venture company with Microsoft constitutes a foot in the door for the boys from Redmond, who will then contrive to embrace and extend their way through Ericsson's operations until CE does in fact triumph. Microsoft only has itself to blame if people think this kind of stuff, and after all the hoo-ha about integration of browsers it only has itself to blame when people assume an MS browser automatically comes with an MS operating system attached. But actually, with Mobile Explorer, this isn't the case; not yet anyway (Microsoft only has itself to blame when people say this too). The Mobile Explorer announcement was to some extent eclipsed by the announcement of the Ericsson deal, but look at the small print, and compare it with what Ballmer was saying about the market later, and a different picture emerges. Mobile Explorer is being presented as a multiple component platform that will let Microsoft partners (i.e. Ericsson, at the moment) pick and mix the bits they want. The components are dual mode browser (which will become somewhat more dual mode with the addition of Ericsson's WAP input), Windows CE, applications and server-side components. Ericsson, it would appear, has picked the browser and server-side components. Mobile Explorer for feature phones (again, the one covered in the Ericsson deal) "is an operating system independent, air-link agnostic, browser-based solution that enables secure corporate or personal access to email, personal information manager data and the Internet when connected to a wireless network." This manifestation of the product is aimed slap-bang at the major growth area for mobile phones on the Internet, which is of course for cheaper classes of hardware that can pick up your email and do a bit of other Web-related stuff. The more upmarket "communicator" class of hardware is where Psion lives at the moment, and where CE is most likely to end up fighting Symbian-based devices, but the unit sales will only be a small part of the total market. So we can conclude that Microsoft has learned something. If it can produce a slim browser for mobile phones in general (incidentally it bought this browser from a Cambridge outfit earlier this year), it's going to get access to a lot more eyeballs than it would if it carried on flogging down the CE route. It may even have learned enough to pull a flanker on Symbian, because although Symbian's EPOC is intended to scale down to feature phone class hardware, OS agnosticism could give Microsoft an advantage (even if an OS-agnostic Microsoft is a positively eye-rolling concept). Alongside the feature phone implementation Microsoft will also be offering Mobile Explorer for smart phones, which will use CE, and will therefore be a direct competitor for EPOC-based communicators. But although Microsoft doesn't mention it, a couple of the Ericsson speakers this week did trail the possibility of Mobile Explorer running on Symbian, so even this implementation of the Microsoft product shouldn't be assumed as being CE-only - Microsoft does describe Mobile Explorer as a platform, and it might just be reasonable to take this at face value, rather than to try to drag in a specific OS as the real platform. Ballmer's ideas about growth via the Ericsson deal fit in with this. He didn't talk about selling stacks of CE units, but cited instant messages, chat and calendar applications as being places where the action would be. He was also positively modest in his target for users, pointing out that Microsoft had around 30 million Exchange users, and that he'd be happy if every one of them were using the MS-Ericsson wireless system. Of course he wouldn't really be happy if this was all that happened; he suggested "commoditising" Exchange to be a more general service, which is more like it. But all of these areas fit in with the notion of a slim, OS-agnostic browser-based computing model. This tallies with what Ballmer himself said earlier this year about Digital Dashboards (windows on data, which don't need specific sizes of client or specific operating systems), and with what Bob Muglia had said earlier about the point of the Ericsson deal (Muglia incidentally owns CE development, but it's a bit difficult to confirm this these days - see below). Muglia said the deal was about "corporate access and email and underlying software... the microbrowser is the user interface into the data access world." Muglia's Business Productivity Group within Microsoft owns BackOffice, so he would say that, but it also owns standard applications, Office Online, and the various wireless-related stuff Mobile Explorer is part of, so if Muglia is obviously partial towards BackOffice, Microsoft is structured to encourage this. Really we're left with a growing picture of a Microsoft strategy that still aims at owning the client, but that doesn't necessarily aim at pushing a single, proprietary, Windows client. This change from Windows Everywhere could come in extremely handy if Microsoft ends up being forced to split into three or more separate companies (by a remarkable coincidence, three prototype groups, Windows, online and applications, now exist), but more importantly it's a sensible approach to take in preparation for a world of pervasive connectivity where the PC is likely to fade to only a small part of the total picture. By competing with a slim microbrowser Microsoft stands a good chance of getting the ubiquitous client out there, and via this of extending the reach of BackOffice and of the various Internet-related services (travel, shopping, Hotmail, whatever) the MS Consumer Group wants to push. It's actually a pretty sensible strategy, and it's one that would have been a lot less sensible if it was chained to Windows CE. So the next question - what's Windows CE for, anyway? If Microsoft has figured this out, it's not telling us yet. All of the Windows platforms are now in the Platforms Group under Jim Allchin, apart from, er, Windows CE. In future commercial revs CE is to be tagged "Windows Powered," which blurs it more than a little. CE development meanwhile is carried out by the Productivity Appliances Division. This is barely mentioned in Microsoft's orgcharts, but it's part of Muglia's empire. Of the few references made to it this year, the bulk have been of job titles of various Division execs quoted in product announcements. The Mobile Explorer announcement (remember this isn't necessarily a CE product) for example includes a quote from Productivity Appliance Division VP Harel Kodesh. ®

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