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Microsoft backs cell phone standards

The software giant will play a major role in the Open Mobile Alliance, which promotes standard ways for cell phones to exchange data.
Written by Ben Charny, Contributor
Microsoft said Wednesday that it intends to play a major role in a new organization, the Open Mobile Alliance, which is promoting standard ways for cell phones to exchange data over the air.

The Open Mobile Alliance, unveiled Wednesday, was created by the merger of two other groups promoting standard ways for cell phones to exchange data such as e-mails: the Open Mobile Architecture initiative, created by Nokia last year, and the more established WAP Forum, of which Microsoft is a member.

Before Wednesday's announcement, Microsoft had joined only one of the dozens of wireless industry groups. Its absence created a "perceived fragmentation" between the worlds of personal computers, which Microsoft represents, and cell phones, said Mike Wehrs, director of technology and standards for Microsoft's mobility group.

That wedge can't exist, Wehrs said, because mobile data travels not just through the air, but also along the same routes as information sent over the landline Internet.

"We believe that Microsoft's absence from some of the fora has helped drive the perception that there is a wedge between the PC and Internet world and the mobile industry," Wehrs said.

The Open Mobile Alliance has 200 member companies and is focused on one area: the delivery of data over cellular telephone networks. In Europe and Asia, where cell phones outnumber computers, wireless e-mails sent between phones are the norm. But while billions of e-mails are exchanged each month on these continents, wireless data hasn't yet caught hold in the United States.

The alliance thinks the answer is open standards, rather than proprietary standards like CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), which Qualcomm owns the patents to, said Jerry Upton, Motorola vice president of strategy and standards. About 15 percent to 20 percent of the world's cellular telephone networks use CDMA.

The leading cell phone equipment standard is GSM (Global System For Mobile Communications), which is generally considered an open standard. GSM equipment is used in about 70 percent to 75 percent of the world's cellular telephone networks, including AT&T Wireless, which has joined the Open Mobile Alliance.

But CDMA and GSM aren't interoperable, so cell phone service providers' carriers have to craft agreements with each other to let their subscribers "roam" onto the other networks. The cost of those agreements alone--carriers charge for the time on their network--is hindering the spread of mobile data use, Upton said.

Aside from different and competing network and phone standards, there are also several types of operating systems for the higher-end cell phones, or "smart phones," that combine the functions of a PDA (personal digital assistant) and cell phone. The major operating systems are from Palm, Microsoft and Symbian, a private company formed by Nokia and other companies.

The alliance hopes to eliminate the need for many standards and many different operating systems.

Four more forums joining
A representative for the Open Mobile Alliance said that both the Open Mobile Architecture initiative and the WAP Forum will no longer exist. Instead, they will be become "working groups" within the Open Mobile Alliance.

There are four additional organizations that have signed memorandums of understanding to join the Open Mobile Alliance, and also become working groups.

They include the Location Interoperability Forum founded in September 2000 and whose member companies create equipment capable of locating cell phones.

Two of the other organizations that will merge into the alliance are dedicated specifically to wireless messaging. They are the MMS (Mixed Media Messaging) Interoperability Group, created in February, and Wireless Village, which three of the four world's major handset makers created last April to standardize ways of sending wireless instant messages.

The fourth organization that has singed the agreement is SyncML Initiative, created in December by Sun Microsystems, BEA Systems, IBM and several other companies to use Java to link cell phones and servers.

Do you think we're any closer to finding a cell phone standard? TalkBack below or e-mail us with your thoughts.

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