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Window On The Wireless Future?

The computing industry is going mobile as WirelessKnowledge enters the data standards marketplace -and data-friendly CDMA could benefit.

The computing industry is starting to take wireless considerably more seriously. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the launch of WirelessKnowledge. This joint venture was formed in late 1998 by Qualcomm and Microsoft to help carriers provide end-to-end data solutions via an outsourced network operations center approach. The center will serve multiple networks and integrate wide-area carrier connections with data communications within enterprises.

Based in San Diego and headed by former Qualcomm executive John Major, WirelessKnowledge is emphasizing that it will be technology-agnostic, serving non-Microsoft operating systems and all airlinks. "We will build strategic alliances with leaders in the wireless, telephony and computing industries including, but not limited to, equipment, software and service providers. We will offer device-independent access," explains Major in a written statement.

However, Microsoft's influence is apparent in that the operations center has a Windows NT foundation and will provide virtual Microsoft Exchange server capabilities. Regarding airlinks, Qualcomm chairman and chief executive Irwin Jacobs says it's important to accommodate multiple air interfaces to encourage the adoption of wireless data.

"We're not completely forgetting about CDMA," Jacobs adds however. "We expect that wireless data will put a number of capacity requirements on the existing systems, and many of those can be supported very nicely by CDMA." He notes that the global wireless industry in general is looking ahead to CDMA as a data-friendly technology.

Furthermore, carriers with at least some cdmaOne interests are represented among those operators initially lending support to the WirelessKnowledge program. They include AirTouch Communications, Bell Atlantic Mobile, Bell Mobility (of Canada), GTE Wireless, Leap Wireless International, Sprint PCS and US West Wireless, as well as AT&T Wireless, a TDMA operator.

"We'll offer this to carriers who can package it in and make it part of their overall offering," says Microsoft president Steve Ballmer. Key to the WirelessKnowledge approach, he adds, are "Internet standard protocols, Internet standard protocols, Internet standard protocols."

Ballmer noted that Microsoft's meetings with Qualcomm over the past year provided "a clarion call" to go beyond touting the Windows CE operating system as a potential backbone for wireless handsets and instead find ways to more fully support wireless data applications. WirelessKnowledge grew out of that revised position. Also in line
with that thinking, Microsoft is working on a microbrowser to allow Internet access for portable devices like smart phones that are often memory-constrained and power-constrained. It will support IP standards like HTML and XML, Ballmer says.

This Microsoft initiative appears to compete with a similar effort by Unwired Planet and the Wireless Access Protocol Forum, founded by Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola, which counts more than 70 members. WAP also uses an XML-compatible dialect called WML (for Wireless Markup Language) and runs on IP, says WAP Forum Chairman Chuck Parrish.
While Microsoft's announcement has validated the marketplace, according to Parrish, he says the WAP Forum has invited Microsoft to join the group's efforts rather than go it alone. "We'll do everything we can to keep this space unified so we can have wireless Internet," he says.

WAP has pledged to continue its initiative, with or without Microsoft's participation, with "tens of millions" of WAP-compatible phones predicted to hit the global marketplace in the near future. Four cdmaOne handset manufacturers-LG, Samsung, Qualcomm and Sony-have formally announced plans to build handsets with Unwired Planet's WAP-compatible UP.Browser, and other handset vendors are expected to implement their own WAP-compatible browsers in upcoming models. WirelessKnowledge has said it will offer a WAP-compatible platform, free of any parental influence from Microsoft.

Beyond the microbrowser issue, Microsoft also hopes to create a smartphone platform in the next two years, according to Jonathan Roberts, the company's general manager for Windows CE and market development. In Microsoft parlance, this "targeted device" program will provide manufacturers with hardware guidance and the software they need, much in the way it has supported palmtop computers and laptop companion devices with the Windows CE program. Microsoft has not specified whether it is targeting a specific airlink for the platform, but Roberts acknowledges that "Qualcomm has committed to building an implementation of that phone."

Qualcomm has other, related, plans for wireless data. Paul Jacobs, president of the company's consumer products division, notes that Windows NT and back-office products will be integrated into Qualcomm infrastructure. As for mobile devices, Qualcomm is planning a Windows CE ASIC and will integrate the planned WinCE microbrowser into its terminals.

The first WirelessKnowledge service deployments by carriers are expected in North America during the second quarter of 1999.