Rogers AT&T added to wireless arsenal

In another step aimed at catapulting its software onto mobile devices, Microsoft Corp. announced recently that it has struck an alliance with AT&T Wireless Services Inc. to provide new wireless services and devices to business customers.

Under the deal, AT&T and Microsoft will provide wireless access to e-mail, information and applications behind corporate firewalls for users of new Microsoft Windows-powered Pocket PCs, smart phones and laptops.

The agreement also heralds the first set of services and devices powered by Microsoft’s Pocket PC Phone Edition software, which are set to be available in the fourth quarter of this year, the companies said.

Given Microsoft’s history with release deadlines, Albert Daoust, handheld computing analyst for Toronto-based Evans Research Corp., said an actual product launch this year is doubtful. However, since Rogers AT&T Wireless has shown a strong commitment to handheld devices in Canada Daoust said it will adopt the technology as soon as possible.

“For this next-generation, high-bandwidth network they’ve got 85 per cent coverage as opposed to (AT&T’s) 60 per cent south of the border. And although they started marketing to their cable subscribers they want something snazzy for businesses to try and increase their presence in a business market which is still mostly Bell Mobility,” Daoust said

This initiative, announced by Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer during a conference call from New York, is just the latest in a series of partnerships the software maker has sewn up with wireless carriers. Microsoft is hoping to use its dominance of desktop business software to grab a large part of the burgeoning wireless software market.

The two Redmond, Wash.-based companies have been working together for the last six months and are in the last stages of product development and customer trials, Ballmer said.

The deal is not exclusive, however, given that both companies are eager to gobble up the most market share they can.

“Steve wants his operating system in every device and we want to carry the back-up services in every device,” AT&T Wireless chairman and chief executive officer John Zeglis said during the call.

Pocket PC devices boasting the new wireless services are due out in the fourth quarter of this year and smart phones should be rolling out in early 2003, Zeglis said.

The Pocket PC Phone Edition devices will be equipped with integrated GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) and GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) voice and data-calling capabilities. The companies are also developing a voice-enabled PDA powered by Microsoft’s Pocket PC Phone Edition software that will also be available in the fourth quarter.

Although it’s still too early to know if there really is a demand for triple-function devices that combine e-mail, some handheld computing and a cell phone, Daoust said the carriers will offer anything that will help them take subscribers away from their competitors and slow the churn of their own (customer) base. “They are also looking for a device that chews up minutes … and all the manufacturers want to work with them.”

While Microsoft has been known to bungle releases, the company has a history as a relentless pursuer of attractive markets, Daoust said. Microsoft’s ultimate level of interest largely depends on companies like RIM and Palm creating an enterprise market for triple function devices, he said.

“Microsoft has anted into the pot and whether they fold or go to the next round is going to depend on how well the Palm camp does. They’ll ante in for $5 and if they really want it they’ll raise it $1000,” Daoust said.

The companies also announced that AT&T will be the first wireless carrier to offer enterprise-grade Microsoft .Net location-based services on Pocket PCs and laptops through MapPoint .Net mapping and location services and the .Net Compact Framework. The companies will collaborate on sales and account planning, marketing and solution development.

The companies said that they will be integrating point-and-click features in the new devices that access wireless services, making them easy to use “out of the box.” Microsoft and AT&T will co-market the products and services. Additionally, AT&T will push the devices through its retail channels.

The deal is a coup for both companies, according to telecom industry analyst Jeff Kagan of Marietta, Ga.

” This partnership is a win-win for both Microsoft and AT&T Wireless because it brings everything together … customers, revenues, state of the art wireless data networks and cutting edge content, software and applications,” Kagan said in an e-mail analysis of the deal.

The partnership also highlights Microsoft’s aggressiveness when it comes to tackling a new market.

” It’s becoming clear that Microsoft wants to own the wireless data market like they own the desktop,” Kagan said. “Microsoft is trying to make lightning strike twice.”

-with files from IDG News Service