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We have seen before how mobile email infrastructure is the first key battlefield in the fight to control the wireless enterprise market. Recently, Microsoft has backed away from ambitions to make Windows devices universal in the corporate sector, recognizing the presence of new clients such as smartphones, but it is relentless in its determination to dominate the middleware that delivers key applications to those clients, with email being the first one to be deployed by most companies. Conversely, its challenger Nokia has stopped trying to exclude Windows and .Net from the enterprise picture and is working to integrate its own software and device platforms with important Microsoft technologies like Exchange.

The next move in Microsoft's bid to control mobile email - as a basis for broader middleware presence - will come with the forthcoming upgrade to the Windows Mobile operating system. Codenamed Magneto, one of its most significant functions will be a push email application designed to rival the widely installed BlackBerry server software from Research in Motion, which is licensed by many cellphone makers including Nokia.

The software giant is to freeze the Windows Mobile 2005 code this month and provide new technology in Exchange 2003 Server Pack 2 that will push email out to mobile workers, say sources. The new generation of devices would then be ready for the autumn.

"Microsoft aims to kill BlackBerry," an insider told CRN. "Every corporate type has a BlackBerry, and they all have Outlook. What is the cost going to be to RIM Server when Exchange Service Pack and Magneto come out and they're not priced? Microsoft is giving it away for free."

A combination of Microsoft's aggressive licensing program for its Exchange synchronization protocol, ActiveSync - which has netted Nokia and PalmOne, among others - and its own push email application could put it in a strong position against BlackBerry, giving enterprises the features they like about the RIM software, notably its push functionality, within a broader corporate Exchange platform that can be deployed to Windows or third party mobile clients. Email is critical because corporations typically use it as the first wave of their mobile strategy, and then build on that application as they evolve a more comprehensive set of services. Technology used in the first phase is then in a good position to be retained - providing results have been good - in subsequent, more complex deployments, always a disadvantage for RIM, since it is limited to one app. Microsoft, like IBM with its WebSphere/Java approach, can promise far greater scalability within a single environment.

Much will depend on whether the usability at the client end is acceptable to current - and often fanatically enthusiastic - BlackBerry users. Magneto is attempting to address many of the shortcomings of Windows Mobile in terms of friendliness to the end user. It will feature a new user interface, support for high resolution graphics, improved video support via Windows Media 10, better keyboard support, enhanced Word and Excel with charts, a mobile chat application called Pocket MSN, and for WiFi.

Beyond that, Microsoft is at work on a more feature-rich upgrade of Windows Mobile, codenamed Photon, with efforts to extend battery life significantly.

A sign of how important the BlackBerry market is to Microsoft was seen in an attack on RIM by the company, whose mobile business group issued a series of claims that mobile email, as a standalone application, does little to justify investment, with benefits being hard to measure.

"Everybody says wireless email is worth it, but getting the value is tougher," said Microsoft. "The big benefits we are seeing are coming from email plus applications."

For its part, RIM continues to enhance its own enterprise platform to retain the support of customers and licensees. Its latest move is to launch a new application developer system for its BlackBerry platform at the Wireless Enterprise Symposium 2005 in Orlando. The new platform, called BlackBerry Mobile Data System (MDS) v4.1, will make it easier for enterprises to develop and launch new applications on BlackBerry devices. MDS v4.1 will include a visual design tool, better support for mobile Java, and access for Web services. RIM will demonstrate the platform's mobile Java compatibility with Sun Microsystems at Wireless Enterprise Symposium.

Copyright © 2005, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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