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Senior Editor

Gates pushes Microsoft mobile agenda

Mar 24, 20035 mins
Cellular NetworksMicrosoftNetwork Security

If Microsoft was chastened by last year’s antitrust ruling, Chairman Bill Gates gave no evidence of it last week as he laid out his mobile and wireless computing ambitions.

NEW ORLEANS – If Microsoft was chastened by last year’s antitrust ruling, Chairman Bill Gates gave no evidence of it last week as he laid out his mobile and wireless computing ambitions.

Speaking at the first Microsoft Mobility Developers Conference in New Orleans – purposely held near the annual CTIA Wireless 2003 conference – Gates presided over the launch of the .Net Compact Framework. This is a set of development tools, code and software objects that let developers quickly build applications for an array of handheld devices that use Windows operating systems.

Gates painted a rosy view of mobile computing trends. Then he issued what could be viewed as a promise, threat or statement of fact – or all three – with regard to handheld rivals PalmSource, Symbian and Sun.

“We are going to invest and invest and invest to get the most popular software platform because we believe in these [kinds of mobile and wireless] scenarios,” Gates said.

He called the Microsoft Tablet PC operating system, introduced late last year, an “explosive form factor.” He pointed to new software platforms for “smart devices,” including sophisticated cell phones and even a wrist-watch-sized network device, dubbed Spot, versions of which watchmakers Citizen, Fossil and Suunto are developing. “We’re taking familiar things [from the Windows development world] and bringing them to this new form factor,”he said.

And then he reminded his listeners where the money was.

“Those who start early in writing applications for this [market] will be the winners,” Gates said.

Test versions of .Net Compact Framework have been available for months. But the finished product goes a long way toward simplifying mobile programming, according to an engineering team at Shelflink, a Cambridge, Mass., software company that was one of the first to partner with Microsoft in the Compact Framework project. Shelflink has shifted from Web and client/server development on Microsoft platforms to mobile applications.

“You can develop for handheld devices without needing expertise in that device,” says Andrew Park, a Shelflink software architect.

This first release of Compact Framework is for Windows CE .Net 4.1 and above, and for Pocket PC 2000, which is a version of CE tailored for handheld computers and PDAs. But during Gates’ keynote address, Microsoft employees demonstrated Compact Framework for a future version of the Smartphone operating system, which is targeted at Internet cell phones. In the onstage demonstration, a developer created a customized “home” screen for an Internet cell phone and installed it in just a few minutes.

Gates left no doubt that Microsoft is trying to bring its dominance in desktop operating systems and application development to a mobile market that will grow to billions of devices.

He cited a recent survey that gave Microsoft’s Smartphone operating system, a version of Windows CE, 55% of the U.S. market for these cellular phones that combine voice with data capabilities such as Short Message Service messaging, or Web browsing. “We’re just at the start of this,” Gates said.

The .Net Compact Framework is a subset of .Net, a set of APIs, development tools and other Web services building blocks.

“Web services are a perfect fit for mobile devices,” Gates said. That’s because remote servers can do the heavy lifting in application processing.

That describes the experience at Pepsi Bottling Group of Somers, N.Y., and Shelflink, which was PBG’s software developer for a critical new sales application built using Compact Framework.

That application is being loaded on custom-built Microsoft Pocket PC handhelds from Symbol Technologies for 6,000 Pepsi sales representatives, who call on thousands of grocery and convenience stores and other retailers every week.

“When our reps meet with a store manager, they have just a few minutes to make their sale,” says Paul Hamilton, PBG’s vice president of supply chain logistics. “We’re giving them the ability to forecast [accurately] what a given Safeway [supermarket] will sell during a particular week. The goal is to manage inventory to zero, and out-of-stocks to zero, for the retailer.”

Instead of a binder inches thick with data on Pepsi promotions, product sales and retailer sales statistics, sales representatives have started to use the Symbol handheld to download and display a variety of data on the customers’ past and pending orders, on how various Pepsi products have sold at that retail site and current PBG promotions, including Macromedia Flash animations.

One of the most important elements is a highly sophisticated sales forecasting application. PBG, working with IBM, created the complex mathematical models, which run on servers. The servers do all the initial processing. Then, the relevant data for a specific customer site is made available as an XML Web Service, which is called by the program on the Symbol handheld. There, a calculation program built by Shelflink with Compact Framework completes the number crunching and displays how many cases of each beverage product to order. The entire project took eight months instead of years, according to PBG’s Hamilton.

Shelflink programmers said some of Microsoft’s prebuilt Compact Framework components performed poorly, and substituted their own. “They’ve not pushed Compact Framework far enough on their own, for developers like us,” says Nate Quigley, another architect at Shelflink.

But the alternative is worse. “Right now, it’s an either/or choice between Java and .Net, and it quickly becomes a religious discussion,” Quigley says. “We don’t think Java 2 Micro Edition is as easy to use, and it has a less integrated approach [than Compact Framework].”

Eventually, .Net Compact Framework will be embedded in a range of devices using the Microsoft operating system, Gates said. It will then become pervasive, so application developers can assume that the Compact Framework infrastructure already exists for any new application they build. Later this year, the Visual Studio .Net tool set will incorporate the Compact Framework, he said.

Senior Editor

I cover wireless networking and mobile computing, especially for the enterprise; topics include (and these are specific to wireless/mobile): security, network management, mobile device management, smartphones and tablets, mobile operating systems (iOS, Windows Phone, BlackBerry OS and BlackBerry 10), BYOD (bring your own device), Wi-Fi and wireless LANs (WLANs), mobile carrier services for enterprise/business customers, mobile applications including software development and HTML 5, mobile browsers, etc; primary beat companies are Apple, Microsoft for Windows Phone and tablet/mobile Windows 8, and RIM. Preferred contact mode: email.

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