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Microsoft aims to lead smartphone market within three years

Posted: 28 Jun 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:mobile? embedded? smartphone? palmsource? symbian?

The chief of Microsoft's mobile and embedded division is promising something that seems counterintuitive: a complex suite of features in a smart phone that's cheap and easy to use and in so doing take the lead in the smartphone market within three years.

To date, Microsoft is well known for delivering on the first item, but not necessarily the second two, which is why some users have shunned Microsoft's mobile version of Windows and preferred operating systems from the likes of PalmSource Inc. and Symbian Ltd.

Zhang Ya-qin is on a crusade to change that. As the head guru of the software giant's Mobile and Embedded Devices division, he has been working closely with hardware makers in Asia to deliver customized smart phones to the market. Microsoft's close relationship with Taiwan's High Tech Computer is the cornerstone of that effort, producing phones that have been picked up by telecom operators in dozens of countries.

Zhang hopes to emulate his division's success in the handheld computing sector, where it dethroned PalmSource as the dominant OS after about five years in the market. The next milestone is clawing its way to the front of the smartphone pack. Zhang reckons Microsoft can do it within the next three years, but that could be a tough sell, given that Symbian currently has 76 percent of the smart mobile device market, compared to 7.6 percent for Microsoft, according to market researcher Canalys.

Still, Zhang believes a few recent developments bode well for Microsoft.

"The operator has become a lot more prescriptive, in terms of the kinds of service they want to provide, and the industry is moving more from voice-centric models to a more data-centric service model, so we need more software and services, more capabilities, in terms of multimedia, video communications, push to talk and connectivity to your corporate network," he said.

Better than Blackberry, Microsoft claims

Microsoft has moved to address this demand for additional features in the latest rollout of Microsoft's Mobile 5.0, he said. Released last month, version 5.0 is looking to woo IT managers away from Research in Motion's popular BlackBerry service by integrating a push email system. However, the architecture used by Microsoft, Zhang said, employs a more direct approach for linking users with email, cutting out the proprietary servers used by RIM as part of their service package.

"There is no middleware, no server... that impersonates you to get all your data that is then passed through a network center to the device. That is a zigzag approach. We are also cheaper. You don't have to pay for the server and the user doesn't have to pay the service fee," he said. "It is also more secure. RIM has to use a lot of encryption along the way because data has to be directed to multiple places. In our case, there is only one set of encryption you need to use, from your server to the device. And we use a standard encryption protocol: SSL. We don't need anything else."

RIM, which has 3 million subscribers worldwide, declined comment regarding Microsoft's claims. Although the two are rivals, they cozied up to each other earlier this year in a deal that delivers enterprise-class instant messaging to RIM users and also lets them check on the presence of others in the corporate network - all through Microsoft's Office Live Communications Server 2005.

Zhang also said Microsoft is on track to make smartphones a device for the middle-class masses. "There is a misconception that all smart phones are expensive. In the very beginning, yes, smart phones were expensive, power hungry and bulky; that was probably two or three years ago," he said. "But if you look at the products that we had in the last year or so, it is very different. The devices are as small and as cheap as a regular feature phone, around $199 (with subsidy)."

Zhang believes the deal Microsoft struck with manufacturing services provider Flextronics earlier this year will drive the cost even lower. The platform, dubbed Peabody, will reportedly be based on the OMAP730 GSM/GPRS processor from Texas Instruments, and include 32-Mbytes of RAM and 64-Mbytes of flash memory. It will also include a 1.9-inch color LCD with a resolution of 176 x 220 pixels, USB and IrDA ports and a miniSD slot. A 1.3 megapixel camera is optional. The first devices should come on the market in 2006, Zhang said.

- Mike Clendenin

EE Times

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