Airstream: a lift for Microsoft?

Microsoft is soon releasing a wireless intiative - Airstream.

Microsoft corp. is still not the darling of the wireless world but not for lack of trying. The software company, which has invested heavily in several wireless initiatives, plans to release code this fall for one of its latest ventures, a wireless server platform code-named Airstream.

Airstream will enable multiple devices to access Windows-based applications and data on the Internet and a corporate intranet. The middleware will translate application data so that it can be read by cell phones and other devices.

Microsoft initially will ship code to software developers so that they can start testing their applications on the platform, with commercial availability of the software expected within 12 months, officials said.

Microsoft will market the Windows 2000-based software to corporate customers as well as carriers. In April, it announced a joint effort with AT&T Corp. and British Telecommunications plc. to host Airstream-based services on the carriers' respective wireless data networks.

Airstream seems similar in concept to products from Wireless Knowledge, a San Diego company that Microsoft and Qualcomm Inc. formed in 1998. Wireless Knowledge's first product, called Revolv, was designed to let carriers provide access from microbrowser-equipped cell phones to Microsoft Exchange data on a corporate intranet.

But carriers were cool to the software, so Wireless Knowledge reworked the product in February for enterprise customers as well as carriers and released a shrink-wrapped package called Workstyle Server. The latest version provides access to Exchange and Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes, with support for other applications in the works.

Officials at Microsoft and Wireless Knowledge insist their products will be complementary, not competitive. This week, the two will make an announcement about plans to co-develop wireless products in the future.

"Wireless Knowledge will be working with us to help develop some of the technology that will be part of the Airstream platform," said Scott Gode, group product manager for Global Mobility marketing at Microsoft, in Redmond, Wash. "As the Airstream platform begins to roll out, they will be one of the key providers of the applications [that run across it]."

Some observers don't see quite as much synergy between the camps.

"There's a big can of worms between the two groups," said one software executive who's familiar with the efforts of both sides. "It feels like they're still figuring it out."

As it shores up its wireless server offerings, Microsoft continues to work on the client side of wireless access. The company is working with Ericsson Inc. on a venture to develop wireless applications for Microsoft platforms and port Micro soft's Mobile Explorer microbrowser onto Ericsson phones.

Microsoft's goal is to dislodge Phone.com Inc. as the premier provider of cell phone microbrowsers.

"The microbrowser marketplace is dominated by one company, and we need to find people who are able to help us change that," Gode said.

Some wireless application providers believe Microsoft will be more successful in its latest wireless ventures than it has been to date with its handheld software efforts, notably Windows CE.

"They really seem to get it now," said Bernard Desarnauts, CEO of Via Fone.com Inc., a wireless application service provider in Redwood City, Calif. "They're building a complete solution starting with the back office all the way to the browser. ... The challenge they're going to have is ... getting the browser to run on all the devices."