Industrial Evolution
By Justin Ried, Tue Nov 14 00:00:00 GMT 2000

Watching the 800-pound gorillas of the IT industry suddenly 'get it' and fall all over themselves for wireless can be pretty entertaining in itself. But along the way, we get a rare chance to see just how willing these behemoths are to drop everything in their bid to ride the 'next big thing.'

Microsoft and Sun Microsystems are two industry heavyweights that are naturally anxious to cash-in on the mobile revolution. But do they really have a chance at re-inventing themselves; given the baggage they're carrying over from last year's business strategies?

First there was Microsoft

Last month Microsoft formally unveiled their wireless strategy at the Mobile Phone Design Review in London. We saw Ben Waldman, senior vice-president of Microsoft's Mobile Devices Division spill the beans about their mobile vision.

After coming onstage, an obviously nervous Waldman admitted "using the words Microsoft, mobility, and strategy in the same sentence was unheard of just a year ago." And true enough, it was.

But true to form, he claimed it's been a part of their strategy all along. In fact, "It's central to Microsoft's vision going forward."

I couldn't help sarcastically thinking to myself "Didn't see that one coming, now did we?"

Have we heard this song before? Is this the same come-lately strategy we saw Microsoft employ with the Internet? Couldn't be! Has their patented embrace, extend, and extinguish philosophy finally spread to the mobile world as well? If Microsoft has its way, it sure will, as Mr. Waldman further explained.

"Microsoft is a platform company," he said. Not only do they want Mobile Explorer, that slick do-it-all browser to power your mobile, they "Want Mobile Information Server 2001 powering the network behind it."

In return, they'll offer what they think is tomorrow's next 'killer application.' What is it? Seamless access to corporate email and other services already residing on the hundreds of thousands of Exchange servers around the world. We'll be able to access 40 million Exchange and 70 million Hotmail email boxes from virtually anywhere, on any Microsoft device. Not to mention calendars, contacts, and other Exchange niceties.

Leveraging the dominance Microsoft already has in the desktop and server markets is something they're good at; and is something that industry watchdogs could see coming a mile away.

Waldman further explained that once Microsoft owns the mobile platform, their focus will shift to "building rich new data services" for the end-user. Unfortunately, he didn't elaborate on just what those might be.

Another major promise is security. "If Microsoft can provide an end-to-end solution for subscribers," Waldman claims, "an otherwise unattainable level of security will result." However, with patch after patch coming out of Redmond just trying to keep the desktop/server products moderately secure, this may be hard to swallow.

While any one of these services may be considered a good thing, handing the platform itself over to a company that's currently defending its desktop monopoly in court is risky business.

And the only real competition for Microsoft in this area so far is London-based Symbian.

A joint venture between Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia, Panasonic and Psion, Symbian has been developing a small, efficient, easy to use operating system called EPOC for nearly a decade. Based on an open core that individual vendors customize for their handsets, EPOC attempts to bridge the gap between your mobile and the Internet. Now at version 6.0, EPOC is currently the dominant OS powering handsets by a large margin.

But Microsoft is vying for the same position. And again, leveraging their control of the desktop is part of the strategy. We've seen it bury Netscape, and we'll see it try to do the same here.

And then there was Sun

Last week, Sun Microsystems' executive vice-president John McFarlane announced the company's own mobile strategy.

Sun, who McFarlane states has actually "been a part of the telecoms sector for many, many years," also announced that the Third-Generation Partnership Project has just adopted Java2 Micro-Edition (J2ME) as a de facto 3G standard.

This means the largest body governing 3G standards deployment has given the stamp of approval to a runtime environment that enables UMTS handsets to talk to the network and other terminals using the same language. They'll also be able to execute the same program files, regardless of the hardware underneath.

But Sun's real push will be made with their new iPlanet services that run on top of Solaris. iPlanet is a set of server-side tools that currently enable application distribution and secure e-commerce transactions via the mobile. Future versions promise to take on added functionality as the market matures.

In addition, the software promises to adhere to open standards such as XML, Bluetooth and Java to encourage third-party development of end-user services.

McFarlane went on to state that Sun's primary goal is to "Become the number-one thought leader and provider for the wireless Internet" and that their philosophy was to create "technology that unifies."

They appear to be making headway toward that goal. With Solaris, Sun currently supplies nearly all major wireless operators with the server software driving their networks. And since four out of five of the leading terminal manufacturer's have committed to integrating J2ME into their devices, they've certainly got their foot in the door.

They're putting their money where their mouth is, too. Sun last week announced a $100 million venture capital fund set aside for getting mobile Internet startups off the ground. The main purpose is to help enable small companies to develop those killer third-party applications served by iPlanet.

To demonstrate their vision of an iPlanet future, Sun showed off a video of a young woman getting all sorts of useful information from her mobile phone, and later on, her connected sport utility vehicle. The mobile was smart enough to tell her, based on her calendar, that she needed to leave one meeting sooner than previously planned in order to make her next meeting, due to changing traffic conditions.

Then, as she drove in her Ford Explorer, various routes were proposed to her by the onboard computer - which was monitoring the city's traffic while looking for the quickest route to her destination.

It was also monitoring her fuel tank, and since it was low, when she drove near a gas station a brief advertisement came on asking her if she would like to fill up, and also negotiated the price of the gas.

It was a neat demonstration, even if a bit far-off.

But that's not the attitude McFarlane had. He said that services like these are "right on the verge of happening." and that the true challenge to the industry was enabling convergence. With so many amazing services becoming a possibility, how do we ensure they'll work together?

The answer, McFarlane claims, lies with open standards. First, the devices have to speak the same language. Creating integrated, open solutions requires the cooperation of everyone in the industry, and "No-one can do it alone."

And so the story goes. Unlike the desktop, the mobile platform of the future is still up for grabs.

So with Microsoft trying to re-invent itself via .NET and the Mobile Information Server, and Sun trying to build iPlanet on the success that has been Solaris, we're set to see an interesting showdown.

The very language of the mobile world stands to be defined by the winner, and it'll be survival of the fittest.

With a mobile phone in one hand and a mouse in the other, Justin Ried writes about technology for TheFeature.