Microsoft opens a new window to another operating system

For the first time in its history, Microsoft will make its Office applications run on a mobile operating system that isn’t Windows.

The software company said Wednesday it has entered an alliance with Nokia to build mobile communications and collaboration applications and services – including a mobile version of Microsoft Office — for the handset maker’s Symbian operating system.

There was no detail on how the applications will be priced.

The move, industry analysts said, is aimed at fending off challenges from Research in Motion’s popular BlackBerry devices, Google’s Web-based applications and handset makers using Google’s open source Android operating system and Apple’s iPhones. The three companies are shouldering giants like Microsoft and Nokia out of the way in mobility.

Starting next year some models of Nokia’s business-oriented E-series of smartphones will come with Office Communicator Mobile presence software, allowing users to see availability of their contacts and click to connect with them by e-mail, voice or text. Other applications, including the ability to access portals built with Microsoft SharePoint, will follow after that. Mobile Office applications will also be available later for other Nokia models.

“This is much more than putting Microsoft software on Nokia smartphones,” Kai Oistamo, executive vice-president for Nokia Devices, said in a phone briefing for industry analysts and reporters. “We are jointly investigating new areas of collaboration. The solutions will break new ground and deliver features that mobile professionals of the future will really need.”

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While many business people start communications with e-mail they want to collaborate in other ways, Stephen Elop, president of Microsoft’s Business Division, told the conference call. “There’s all sorts of opportunity in terms of using the mobile platform to communicate in many different ways.”

“People want to be productive from anywhere and on any device,” he said. The alliance is a way to do that, he said, noting that Nokia ships more than 45 per cent of smartphones worldwide.

“This isn’t a browser discussion,” Elop added, referring to Web-based applications such as Google Docs and others. “Because this is about rich Office Mobile applications there are all sorts of unique opportunities to integrate with the platform Nokia presents with client applications from Microsoft.”

At the same time, he said, the two companies will be competitors. Microsoft is continuing to develop Windows Mobile operating system, and will shortly release version 6.5. It also has Exchange and SharePoint Online services.

For its part, Oistamo said Nokia will continue developing Symbian and has no intention of releasing a Windows Mobile-powered handset. Nokia also has its own Ovi store where productivity and entertainment applications for its handsets can be bought.

Windows Mobile is struggling. According to Gartner, in the third quarter last year sales of Apple’s OS X-based iPhones overtook sales of all Windows Mobile-based phones to take third place among mobile operating systems with just over 12 per cent of the market. Symbian-based phones dominated, accounting for 48.9 per cent of handset sales, followed by RIM phones with 15.9 per cent of the market.

In the short term Windows Mobile faces challenges from open-source alternatives such as Symbian and Google’s Android, Gartner said in a report.

However, Elop turned aside a suggestion from a reporter that the alliance is an admission that Windows Mobile can’t dominate the smartphone market. “This whole relationship is about expanding the reach from a business productivity prospective,” he said. Microsoft has many partners it works and competes against, he said.

“We both believe in choice,” he said at another point, “and understand that different people and different businesses need different solutions. One size does not fit all.”

The deal could get Nokia back into the enterprise market in Canada and the U.S., where, unlike other parts of the world, it has been largely absent. Of the three major wireless operators in this country, Rogers offers only one E-series phone. Bell and Telus don’t carry any.

At one point Oistamo said the partnership will be a “formidable challenge” to Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion, which recently opened its own BlackBerry applications store, than to any other company. It’s a statement that Rob Helm, managing vice-president of research at Directions on Microsoft, agreed with.

“RIM is probably Microsoft’s toughest competitor in the business market,” he said, “and Office is one of the biggest clubs Microsoft can bring to the mobile enterprise market.” The alliance reflects two conflicting goals within Microsoft, he added – to get Windows Mobile into more handsets, and to sell more of the company’s signature (and lucrative) Office apps.

“This story is about Microsoft trying to expand Office as wide as possible even at the expense of its own operating system,” he concluded.

As to whether mobile businesspersons want to use productivity apps, Helm said that as more manufacturers put out large screen handsets such as Apple’s iPhone, users will be willing to do more with them. “It’s not ever going to be a matter of typing long documents,” he said, “but I think you’ll see more people doing small edits will become more common.”

Kevin Restivo, a mobility analyst at IDC Canada agreed. “It’s still very early days for enterprise applications on the mobile,” he said, “so I think the timing is great for Microsoft,” while potentially helping Nokia attract more business users.

The alliance addresses what Forrester Research sees as the evolution of enterprise mobility, said senior analyst Michele Pelino, co-author of a recent report on the future demand for mobile unified communications. Increasingly, organizations want staffers to use mobile devices to improve their output, she said, and will look for applications and platforms that give that capability.

“The focus of this [partnership] is opening up opportunities for new kinds of applications and solutions for the productivity capabilities that can be achieved over these devices,” she said.

Others are skeptical. Ron Gruia, a Toronto-based analyst who watches emerging telecom technologies for Frost and Sullivan, wondered whether Office Mobile apps will have all the features of their desktop versions. He noted that today he can’t run macros from his desktop Microsoft Excel spreadsheets on his Windows Mobile-based handset. Still, he said that if Microsoft didn’t make this move Nokia handset users would increasingly use Web-based productivity and collaboration applications.

Mark Tauschek of Info-Tech Research noted that there are a number of smartphone applications that can read and edit Microsoft Office applications. BlackBerrys come with one, he pointed out. “I don’t think it [the partnership] is that big a deal,” he concluded. Nokia E-series phones come with Quickoffice for viewing and editing Microsoft Office files. But a Nokia press spokesman said the partnership will not only create opportunity for “the complete Microsoft Office experience,” it will also be jointly designing applications “to enhance the overall mobile experience for the enterprise.”

Michael Morgan, a mobile device analyst at ABI Research, thinks Nokia will get the better of the partnership because its handset sales lag in Canada and the U.S. It began changing its enterprise strategy last September, he said, when it stopped developing its Intellisync enterprise mobile e-mail platform. At the time Nokia said its future enterprise e-mail systems will be based on platforms from Cisco, Microsoft and IBM, among others.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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