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March 22, 2005

Microsoft/Symbian ActiveSync deal cuts Windows Mobile appeal

Microsoft has licensed its ActiveSync technology to Symbian OS.The deal challenges Research In Motion in push email while reducing whatever attraction the Windows platforms have for mobile telephony, as Rik Turner explains...

By CBR Staff Writer

Of course, UK-based Symbian, owned by a group of mobile operators, is the big and more successful rival to Microsoft in its attempt at propagating its Pocket PC and Windows Mobile Smartphone OSes in the mobile phone market: analyst estimates suggest that some 1 million Microsoft-powered mobile devices shipped last year, compared to 14 million Symbian-based smart phones.

But, as a Symbian spokesperson put it, Microsoft is not a single monolithic structure but rather multiple divisions, and the server division wasn’t happy with the mobility division’s numbers.

In other words, the servers division sees the ActiveSync licensing deal with Symbian as a means of enhancing the attractions of Exchange even in the mobile space, where RIM has so far enjoyed leading mindshare with its proprietary software and its BlackBerry device. It thus behoves the servers division to counter that trend, particularly now that the Canadian push email vendor has begun licensing its technology to other device manufacturers such as Nokia.

The impact this will have on the Windows OS offerings for mobiles remains to be seen. One of their major attractions to date has been the fact that ActiveSync worked on them, enabling users to access the data on the Exchange Server back at the office. Now those boasting rights have been removed.

Licensing the ActiveSync technology, which is what enables mobile email services to update the devices with information on what new mails have been received, to Symbian gives Exchange more than a fighting chance at winning mobile users over.

Two factors work in its favor here. One is the sheer force of Exchange in corporate networks, while the second is the fact that a number of operators are already moving to offer push email services that are not based on the BlackBerry, even if they keep the RIM product as an option in their portfolio. One such example is Vodafone, the largest multi-country mobile operator, which has just launched an alternative service.

The Symbian spokesperson said the deal with Microsoft completed the portfolio of push email options available on its OS. You can already do BlackBerry Connect on a Symbian device, and there are also solutions available from Visto, JP Mobile and Smartner, none of whom use ActiveSync technology. Which of course raises another question: if this deal puts the pressure on RIM, what does it do to these smaller players in push email?

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As for Microsoft, this is not in fact the first time that it has licensed the ActiveSync protocol to a mobile device player: it cut a deal with PalmOne for the technology in October last year, though clearly the relative size of the PDA market vis-a-vis smart phones makes this latest deal far more important.

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