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With BlackBerry in Crosshairs, Microsoft Debuts Mobile Server

The server software, introduced during Steve Ballmer's CTIA keynote Tuesday, will allow mobile devices to be managed and provisioned remotely much like PCs.
Taking direct aim at BlackBerry's commanding lead in the enterprise smartphone business, Microsoft will announce its first server-based tool for managing and securing Windows Mobile devices today. The debut will occur during CEO Steve Ballmer's keynote address this morning at the CTIA wireless conference in San Francisco.

Called System Center Mobile Device Manager, the new product is Microsoft's first dedicated mobile device server, bringing it into direct competition with the BlackBerry Enterprise Server from Research in Motion. Microsoft has long coveted a larger share of the enterprise market for mobile e-mail and other applications for business users, a market in which RIM has a 70% share, according to the Yankee Group research firm.

The new server software will allow mobile devices to be managed and provisioned remotely much like PCs. It will also allow mobile professionals to connect to corporate VPNs using their mobile devices.

"The IT folks, the same as it was in the PC environment, don't want to roll out 10,000 devices. They want to roll out one device 10,000 times," Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg told Reuters. "Microsoft is hoping to replicate the success and the model of the PC."

The new server will be available in the first half of 2008, the company said. The world's leading software provider is also said to be readying a new version of its operating system for mobile devices, Windows Mobile, for release early next year.

Windows Mobile runs on a variety of mobile phones from handset vendors including HTC, Samsung, Palm, and Motorola. Ballmer will also announce a new strategic partnership with a Boston-based startup called Enterprise Mobile, which will help customize and deploy Windows Mobile-based phones for specific enterprises. Enterprise Mobile was created by Corporate Software founder Mort Rosenthal.

While smartphones continue to be a niche market, making up only 10% of the total 1.2 billion handsets that will be shipped worldwide this year according to ABI Research, Microsoft, RIM, and Nokia all covet a larger share of the lucrative corporate market. Most analysts believe that, as more corporate employees work remotely and more applications become available via mobile devices, the market for enterprise smartphones will grow rapidly.

Nokia, the world's leading handset vendor, earlier this year moved up the North American launch of its well-received business-oriented E-series smartphones. Originally rolled out in February at the 3GSM conference in Barcelona, the three new E-series devices -- the E61i, the E65, and the E90 -- are available to U.S. companies through "complementary sales channels" (rather than the usual wireless carrier sales venues), including a distribution agreement with Ingram Micro.

"In gross numbers, the number of corporate inboxes is not growing very fast," says Scott Cooper, VP of mobility solutions in Nokia's enterprise division, "but the number of mobilized inboxes is growing very significantly."

While Nokia's Intellisync device management software allows IT departments to remotely manage devices based on a variety of operating systems including Symbian, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, and Palm, Microsoft's Mobile Device Manager will work only with Microsoft phones.

Microsoft says around 20 million Windows Mobile devices will be sold by handset vendors and carriers this year.