Microsoft's Wireless Go-Round

Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) is once again trying to refine its corporate wireless email offering. This time, Redmond is going to tap startup ViAir Inc. for email forwarding and wireless data synchronization capabilities for Pocket PC handheld computers, as well the ability to look at data either online or offline.

Microsoft has an installed base of millions for its Exchange server and Outlook email client. Allowing wireless access to Exchange data is a natural progression.

But hang on! you might exclaim. Doesn't this sound like what Microsoft was originally doing with Wireless Knowledge Inc. a couple of years ago, and has been working on more recently with Seven Networks Inc.?

Microsoft actually owned around half of Wireless Knowledge but ended up selling the stake to its partner, Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM).

At least some of the development work that Wireless Knowledge did was poured into a standalone product called the Mobile Information Server (MIS), which was originally due last summer. The functions of that software are now being incorporated into the next version of Microsoft's Exchange workgroup server, codenamed Titanium, which is due in the middle of next year.

Microsoft is still working with wireless email startup Seven. The pair signed a development deal in 2001. "The goal of the partnership was, and continues to be today, to work together to create mobile data solutions for operators," a spokesperson for Seven told Unstrung in an email.

Bruce Chatterley, ViAir's CEO, says that the first products from the ViAir deal will be available by the end of the first quarter this year.

Doesn't Microsoft's try, try, and try again approach to wireless email give Chatterley the jitters, we wondered. "No, I just don't think the timing was right," he says. Chatterley reckons that -- other than the dedicated Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) (Nasdaq: RIMM; Toronto: RIM) email pager -- the devices weren't powerful enough, and data-friendly CDMA 1xRTT and GPRS networks hadn't yet been switched on.

"In fact, I think the market is still a little way out, but now's the right time to invest in it," Chatterley says.

So far, 11 carriers worldwide have signed up to use the system. Chatterley says there will be more carrier announcements around the Microsoft deal, but he's not giving anything away at the moment. 300, 000 subscribers currently use ViAir's software, he says.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
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