- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 12, 2006

BARCELONA — Microsoft Corp. has won backing from major cellular networks for a new generation of phones designed to transform mobile e-mail from executive accessory to standard issue for the corporate rank and file.

The partnerships, with operators including Vodafone and Cingular, to be announced today at a mobile industry gathering in Spain, could spell more trouble for the embattled BlackBerry and other niche e-mail technologies, analysts say.

Unlike the BlackBerry and its peers, phones running Microsoft’s latest Windows Mobile operating system can receive e-mails “pushed” directly from servers that handle a company’s messaging, without the need for a separate mobile server or additional license payments.

Microsoft is betting that as costs fall, companies will extend mobile e-mail beyond top management to millions more of their employees.

“We’re at the tipping point of seeing exponential growth in this area,” said Pieter Knook, the U.S. software giant’s senior vice president for mobile and embedded devices.

On the opening day of the 3GSM phone show, Hewlett-Packard Co. and three other handset makers are expected to introduce the first Windows “smart phones” equipped with the new e-mail technology out of the box. HP’s new IPaq HW6900 Mobile Messenger also offers Bluetooth and wireless-fidelity connectivity.

Vodafone Group PLC is to sell the phones under its own brand, in a joint marketing deal, targeting companies that already run Microsoft’s Exchange software on their servers. Exchange is the collaborative glue behind Microsoft’s popular Outlook application, which manages appointments and electronic address books in addition to e-mail.

Together with Cingular Wireless, Orange and T-Mobile, Vodafone also will deliver phone software upgrades to subscribers who already are running the Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system on their smart phones.

Some observers have been predicting that the new technology will hurt BlackBerry’s maker, Canada’s Research In Motion Ltd.

Strand Consult, a Danish information-technology research group, expects companies worldwide to invest in much broader mobile e-mail access for their employees this year.

“At the end of the year, many will be asking themselves whether they really needed a BlackBerry handset from RIM to check mail — and RIM might be asking themselves what went wrong,” Mr. Strand wrote in a research note.

“Microsoft will most probably overtake RIM as the leading mobile e-mail provider.”

Mobile messaging prices already are falling.

In the United States, Cingular last year began bundling an e-mail service from BlackBerry rival Good Technologies Inc. with its unlimited wireless Internet package, at no extra charge.

Wireless access to e-mail, calendars and contacts — once the preserve of jet-setting executives and professionals in law and finance — is seen increasingly as a useful tool for a wider array of workers, keeping them connected wherever they might be.

RIM has 4.3 million BlackBerry customers, most of them in the United States. It enjoys by far the largest single share of a wireless e-mail market now estimated at about 10 million users globally.

But BlackBerry’s future has been clouded by a court decision that it infringes U.S. patents belonging to NTP, a tiny Arlington, Va., technology company that is demanding license payments while seeking an injunction to shut down RIM’s servers. A decision could come later this month.

BlackBerry Connect, a RIM service offering mobile e-mail on rival operating systems such as Symbian, also has failed to make a major impact.

“This means the door’s been left open for others, including Microsoft,” said Andrew Brown, an analyst with consulting group IDC.

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