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Microsoft unveils bold push at wireless show

Microsoft takes a shot across BlackBerry's bow, H-P unveils a new iPAQ and more. MSNBC's Gary Krakow reports from the 3GSM show in Barcelona.
A woman looks at a new generation mobile phone on the first day of the 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.Manu Fernandez / AP

BARCELONA, Spain — Hola from Barcelona where there are two official languages, Catalan and Spanish, and at least this week, a flood of English speakers in town for the 2006 3GSM World Congress.

50,000 or so people who live and breathe cellular phones and everything that goes with them are attending this huge international trade show, held in the Fira de Barcelona, a sprawling hodge-podge of exposition halls in the southeastern part of town. The Fira complex is across the street from Barcelona’s old bullfighting stadium — currently being transformed into a shopping mall — lending some historical color to the battles being waged inside.

This year, the strong undercurrent of the show concerns the problems besetting BlackBerry – the very addictive wireless e-mail service. While BlackBerry parent company Research in Motion (RIM) has a booth here at the show — and while all the people manning that booth are very upbeat — the company's patent fight currently being played out in a U.S. court is one of the big topics on many attendees’ minds.

For weeks, people have been asking themselves, what are the alternatives just in case?  If BlackBerry services are forced off in the United States, what can users do? Today, however, the debate has changed to: Even if BlackBerry avoids a shutdown, can it still survive?

That's because Microsoft has just changed the rules of the game.

In the recent past, BlackBerry provided the only "push" wireless e-mail on the market. Push e-mail means that your e-mail server sends your e-mail to your device as soon as it arrives.

Microsoft Mobile devices — and almost all others — used "pull" e-mail. That means your phone or PDA has to request any messages from the server every few minutes — or hours —depending on your setting.  ( is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

Notice I just used the past tense there.

That’s because Microsoft has announced its own "push” e-mail server software here at 3GSM – and Hewlett-Packard is announcing the first handheld device to take full advantage of the new software. Among the big wireless providers planning to unveil services to support the software are Vodafone, Cingular and T-Mobile.

What's more, the software is being offered as a free upgrade to companies with the latest versions of Microsoft's Exchange Server and Windows Mobile software — that means no costly separate server just for mobile e-mail and no license payments to third-party providers. On that basis alone, the service is going to attract a lot of attention from cost-conscious IT managers, particularly ones already using Exchange Server to manage e-mail accounts.

You see where this is going, right? The BlackBerry has been a big hit, but because of the cost most of the people using it have been high-paid executives (and Hollywood celebrities). If the Microsoft venture succeeds, it will bring the cost down so much that companies could offer push e-mail services to all their employees — and suddenly the market for wireless e-mail looks a lot bigger than Research in Motion's current customer base of more than 4 million customers.

RIM has also been most successful in the United States, which makes it interesting that two of Microsoft's new partners, Vodafone and Orange, are big European wireless providers. Vodafone in particular is planning a major push of the new service.

A new iPAQ

But back to that new H-P smart phone. The iPAQ HW6900 Mobile Messenger is very smart indeed. In addition to coming with the new Microsoft software, it's the first handheld with four integrated radios so owners can find some sort of connection in more places around the world. The phone boasts quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE, Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth wireless technology. It's also compatible with Skype’s Windows Mobile 5.0 client software, allowing customers to use a high-speed Internet connection to take advantage of Internet phone services.

The hw6900 uses the new Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system and integrates directly with Microsoft Exchange Server and Small Business Server. The handheld’s OS has also has been enhanced with persistent storage to prevent the loss of data — even if the battery is removed or drained. It also allows easy synchronization of your music, videos and photos.

I got to play with one of the first 6900’s and came away very, very impressed.  But I’ll have to wait to get my hands on one for a full field test. H-P says the first 6900s will be released in the Far East, followed by Europe in a few weeks. In North America we’ll have to wait a few months to see them.

Open-source push e-mail
And Microsoft is not the only alternate push e-mail solution on the market.  Funambol was at 3GSM talking about their v3 software — the first open source push e-mail product for carriers and enterprises. 

Funambol’s push e-mail capabilities include send, receive and forward functions and allow users to open attachments, check e-mail on and offline, and accept or decline meeting requests.

V3 reportedly also provides standard over-the-air synchronization of calendars, to-do lists, contacts, etc. The server supports RIM BlackBerry, Microsoft Windows Mobile, SyncML-compliant and any WAP-enabled phones.

The other big topic of conversation here is the convergence of cellular phones and television.  Tomorrow I’ll tell you how we’ll all be watching TV on our handsets in the near future.