Join Date: Aug 2006
CeBIT America, Part 3: Interview With Microsoft's Mike Wehrs
This is a re-publishing of a Pocket PC Thoughts article because we thought there was some good Smartphone information in it. - SPT Editors
Yes, it's over a month after CeBIT ended, and I still haven't finished writing this. I hope you find this interview valuable, nevertheless -- info on ActiveSync, Smartphones, and of course, Pocket PCs are present throughout. Read on for the full details!
Who is Mike Wehrs?
Well, as his business card states, he's the Mobility Division's Director of Technology & Standards. He also looks at emerging technologies. Among notable wireless consortia, he's Microsoft's representative for the Open Mobile Alliance, the GSM Association, and he's on the board of the CTIA. As a result, a lot of the business-level standards processes between vendors pass through him.
Technologies he's working on right now include, but aren't limited to, messaging and content download problems; for example, DRM issues are a thorny technology that requires a lot of cooperation.
Show me the Smartphone!
The first major question I tossed to him was one you all probably have on your minds: Smartphone availability in the United States (keep in mind this interview happened before Smartphone Thoughts launched ). He couldn't commit to a specific date, but said that Microsoft expects "significant volumes" to ship this calendar year, and they consider their own task done -- the Smartphone OS is complete and it's largely a matter of getting the manufacturer's devices approved and adopted. Microsoft is also very aware of weaknesses in the GSM coverage in the United States, and also expects a CDMA Smartphone to ship this year. Great news!
While we were talking about Smartphones, I pointed out that current Smartphone 2002 products lacked .NET, and questioned him about Microsoft's efforts to move to .NET on handheld (and especially Smartphone) platforms. His response is that Microsoft still encourages and fully supports native code development, and views .NET deployment as focusing primarily on the enterprise (at least, at this time), due to its support for business processes (such as Web Services support). He cited the fact that handheld devices still have limited resources, and as such compiled code is still the best solution. He also cited Microsoft's Mobile2Market solution to make it easy for Smartphone developers to rapidly build and deploy native-code solutions, and to connect to operators for a relatively straightforward process.
This was a nice point to segue into the whole operator-locking business that we reported on earlier this year. Mike agreed that operators are a challenge to work with, but pointed out that device management as a whole is a challenging problem, especially to reliably deploy and control corporate solutions -- you don't want end-users destroying your specially-developed and deployed application. There is no real comprehensive device management solution (carrier locking, while a first step, has its share of problems), and Microsoft is working with both the OMA and the CTIA on this problem.
I pointed out that if Microsoft doesn't move soon, they won't be the first real popular "smartphone solution" on the market. Mike had an interesting perspective on this: in his opinion, Microsoft doesn't always aim for first-to-market, but rather establishes a set of requirements and initially aims for that. It's very clear from his comments that Microsoft is not afraid of the slow initial Smartphone adoption and is in this market long-term.
I asked him one last question about Smartphones (which also applies to Pocket PC Phones), and that concerned the notable lack of Bluetooth support in any Smartphones/Pocket PC Phones to date. Mike replied that Microsoft is indeed bullish on Bluetooth, but currently isn't pushing it as hard due to interoperability problems; and the serial profile, which is frequently used as a workaround, is really a poor solution long-term. Nevertheless, he sees broader adoption of Bluetooth-based solutions in Smartphones and Pocket PC Phones in the next 12-18 months.
ActiveSync and SyncML, and the Future of Syncing
I finally got an opportunity to ask him the question everyone has on their minds: why ActiveSync, and why not various newly-established standards on the market, like SyncML. His reponse is that Microsoft believes that ActiveSync is currently a more powerful platform than what SyncML supports, and Microsoft believes going to SyncML would currently be a step backwards. He also pointed to the rapid releases of new ActiveSync versions as evidence that Microsoft is listening to customers' complaints and that they're working to correct problems that they have. In his experience, many business customers who had ActiveSync problems often turned out to have old versions of the platform.
I pointed out that while ActiveSync has gotten better, it still has problems, especially with multiple-PC sync. In his opinion, multiple-PC synchronization is much better served by server-side ActiveSync solutions. He himself carries a Pocket PC Phone and a Smartphone, and he uses the Server Activesync solution as provided by Mobile Information Server (and Exchange 2003 to come), and is very happy with its convenience, flexibility, and reliability. I noted that while this was indeed a good option for businesses, it was not currently accessible to consumers. He acknowledged that, and while there are ASPs today that can offer server ActiveSync solutions for small-to-medium-sized businesses, a consumer-based server ActiveSync solution is not yet available -- this would be a great tool for end-users in the future, and he's a firm believer that server ActiveSync is the future.
The upshot is that Mike is indeed working with the OMA to develop the next version of SyncML, and has hopes that the next SyncML solution will be more robust -- it's not out of the question that Microsoft will eventually adopt a SyncML solution for ActiveSync, although this is not happening in the short term. At the same time, he's working with the OMA to develop device management standards.
An interesting footnote: Longhorn will have a broad array of device support, and it's entirely possible Pocket PCs and similar devices will be natively supported by it.
Conclusion and My Analysis
Mike struck me as a very intelligent and sharp guy. He was very aware of all the issues I rose with him and generally had very good answers with each of them. I don't completely agree with Microsoft's ActiveSync strategy, but at least they have a forward vision on how to evolve it for next-generation solutions. Combined with the promise of Smartphones and Bluetooth solutions in the US, it really struck me that Microsoft is definitely in this for the long haul -- and their long-term vision is quite promising. 8)
We've got one more part -- Palm's strategy -- coming up this week. Stay tuned!