What's Microsoft hiding in its Skybox in the cloud?

If you've been wondering what Microsoft's Software+Services strategy is for its Windows Mobile platform, the answer should become a lot clearer in another couple weeks. Here are some new details on Skybox, the mobile-hub component of its soon-to-be-rolled-out mobile services.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

If you've been wondering what Microsoft's Software+Services strategy is for its Windows Mobile platform, the answer should become a lot clearer in another couple weeks.

There have been a few leaks during the past year about Skybox, Skyline and Skymarket -- Microsoft's cloud-based service complements to mobile phones. Microsoft is set to take the wraps off these three services at the Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona in mid-February.

I'm not sure about the extent to which the company is planning to share its mobile-services roadmap later this month. But, thanks to some well-connected sources who've asked to remain anonymous, I have some details (on which Microsoft isn't commenting).

The most interesting member of the new Microsoft mobile trio, Skybox, is a hub for user data and information -- a place for storing and accessing photos, contact lists, calendar items and more on Microsoft datacenter servers. If you lose or switch your phone, all your data and contacts are saved in your Skybox. Skybox is based on the Mobicomp synchronization technologies that the Redmondians acquired when they purchased the Portuguese services company Mobicomp in the summer of 2008.

Skybox, version of 1.0  of which will go to beta in mid-February, according to sources, will be free for customers, thanks to an ad-supported Web portal. Users will be able to back-up and restore their data; manage content; and share that content with other users.

By summer 2009, Microsoft is planning to field the 1.5 version of the Skybox service, sources said. The 1.5 release will come in two flavors, if Microsoft sticks to its current plan: a free Skybox standard service and a subscription-based Skybox premium service. The 1.5 service will be available on Windows Mobile 6.1, 6.5 and a select few non-Windows-Mobile phones.

Skybox Version 2.0 is where things get more involved -- and, if Microsoft can meet its goals -- more integrated with other Microsoft properties.

Skybox 2.0 is designed to allow users to manage their mobile devices from the Web; they will be able to change ringtones, backgrounds and manage their mobile apps, music and video all from the cloud, sources said. Version 2.0 will integrate with Skymarket, providing users with a way to buy and store applications and application data on remote servers. Supposedly, with Skybox 2.0, Microsoft also figures out how to integrate Windows Live services and Live Mesh with Skybox.

(Why you'd still need other existing Microsoft services like Live Mesh, SkyDrive and Live Sync -- the service formrly called Windows Live FolderShare -- in addition to Skyline is not clear to me. The whole idea behind Skybox 2.0 is to make your file and data sharing between your PCs, other devices and phones seamless. I thought that was the goal of Live Mesh, too....)

Skybox 2.0 seems to be running on the same schedule as Windows Mobile 7. (More to come on what that schedule is looking like. Stay tuned. Here's what sources are saying, re: the latest WinMobile ship-date schedule.)

Back to the big Sky picture. Skymarket is Microsoft's equivalent to Apple's iphone App Store. The second piece of the puzzle, Skyline, is a way to push your e-mail, contacts and calendar for both work and personal accounts to your mobile device. The Skyline service is aimed primarily at small-business/home-office workers who don't have a way to handle managed e-mail at the moment.

What are your first impressions of Microsoft's Skybox gameplan?

Update (February 6): It looks like Microsoft is going to make the real name for "Skybox" be "My Phone."

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