Microsoft's strategy to translate its domination of the server market to the wireless world is not going according to plan. For once, the giant faces competition persuading independent developers to focus on its platforms. The Redmond giant plans to extend Windows to mobile and palm devices using its Windows CE OS. But rival allies Nokia, the Symbian consortium and Palm Computing are co-ordinating their fight against Microsoft. On paper, the alliance is a good bet for users and developers. David Potter, chairman of Psion, hinted last month that Symbian and Palm are so strong, even Microsoft might struggle to compete. However, the group faces a tough fight persuading developers to adopt a non-Microsoft platform. Both camps are playing for a stake in the wireless and mobile market, which is expected to be worth $5.1bn by 2005, according to analyst Frost & Sullivan. Symbian's Epoc OS is poised to take a good slice of the market. Its erstwhile rival Palm will develop mobile devices with Nokia, a founder member of Symbian. Nokia and Palm will develop touchscreen-based wireless devices combining Palm's interface and Epoc's speed, to ship this time next year. Nokia will contribute the key technologies, including voice applications and IP-based access to networks. Palm gains access to Nokia's engineering experience in wireless access protocol (Wap), for internet access from mobile devices, and Bluetooth, for connection between different mobile devices. The alliance with Symbian could ultimately result in Palm devices running Epoc, and smartphones on the Palm OS. The partnership puts Epoc in a powerful position. Palm controls 48 per cent of the European PDA market, while Symbian members account for 70 per cent of the mobile phone market, according to researcher IDC. Epoc will be on the majority of next-generation mobile phones and has only one competitor - Microsoft, which is promoting Windows CE for smartphones. Microsoft demonstrated its faith in the smartphone with last November's tie-up with wireless technology developer Qualcomm and its decision to join the Wap Forum, which is pushing for standards in wireless communication. It has even made forays into the rival Epoc camp. In July, it bought STNC, a key supplier of web browser technology to Symbian, for an undisclosed sum. This was followed by a mobile data alliance with NTT DoCoMo, a Symbian development partner and Japan's largest mobile operator. Then there is this month's alliance with BT. The BT deal includes plans to develop wireless access to corporate intranets and email applications. UK trials of the BT Cellnet GSM service are underway, with services expected to become available next year. Corporate customers will receive email, calendaring, web content and access to Microsoft Exchange-based networks. Another ace Microsoft claims to have up its sleeve is the cost of supporting mobile devices. Organisations expect the number of mobile users to increase substantially in two years, but they also expect support costs to increase, according to Forrester Research. Microsoft is already suggesting that organisations can work around this by falling back on in-house skills and support Windows CE, rather than learn new skills and development languages to serve the Symbian and Palm systems. This argument has its flaws, however. Windows CE uses entirely different code from the traditional Windows OS and Microsoft has not yet found a way to link Windows NT to CE. Businesses should tread carefully. Symbian's system may work and deliver true cross-platform compatibility, but Microsoft could triumph in the long run through marketing muscle alone.
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