Microsoft and Vodafone today announced a partnership that aims to bridge the gap between services offered over mobile networks and applications built for PCs.
The companies are developing technologies that should allow developers to write PC applications which incorporate services from wireless operators. These include determining the location of a user, authenticating their identity, accepting payments for services or sending text messages.
For example, a tow-truck company could develop a PC application that connects to a mobile network so that when a customer breaks down and calls for help from a mobile phone, the towing company could quickly see the motorist's location. The operator could also send text messages from the PC to the user's mobile phone telling them when help is on the way, according to company executives.
In another example, an online gaming company could link its servers to a mobile operators' billing system, using it to accept small payments from customers each time they play a game. The gaming company would benefit from not having to develop its own system for accepting so-called micropayments and of course Vodafone would get to keep a cut of the money.
Bill Gates will present the plan jointly with Vodafone executives during the Microsoft chairman's keynote speech at today's International Telecommunications Union conference in Geneva.
Developers can use existing web services technologies like XML (extensible markup language) to link the mobile and computing worlds. But new specifications are needed to define, for example, how a GSM network's authentication system exchanges data with a PC application using web services security protocols, said Charles Fitzgerald, general manager of Microsoft's platform strategies group.
"If an application needs to authenticate a user's identity, we need to be able to describe what those requests look like in well-behaved XML," he said.
The companies will disclose a roadmap for the mobile web services specifications they plan to deliver later this month at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles. They plan eventually to submit them to a standards body and hope they will be used by others in the industry. Applications that make use of mobile services should start to appear next year, Fitzgerald said.
One analyst applauded the effort but said its success depends on winning broad industry support. Major software players such as IBM, as well as mobile operators such as Orange and T-Mobile, are "missing from the table", noted Ted Schadler, principal analyst with Forrester Research.
By developing the initial specifications on their own, Microsoft and Vodafone probably hope to be able to work faster than if they were collaborating with a large group of vendors, he added.
An IBM spokesman said his company supports the effort in principle, but was critical that Microsoft and Vodafone had chosen not to work through an industry consortium such as the Open Mobile Alliance. IBM will be watching to ensure the specifications don't favour developers who use Microsoft's software and tools, said Jon Prial, a vice president with IBM's Pervasive Computing division.
Executives for Microsoft and Vodafone insisted the specifications will be independent of any vendor.
"Our aim is to involve other mobile operators and other software suppliers and to establish standards," said Ian Maxwell, director of group strategic relationships at Vodafone. "We want to work together to create this new industry."
Microsoft hopes to benefit by selling more of its software and tools to companies that build the applications, while operators could benefit by opening new markets in which to sell their services.
"For us this is exciting because we're reaching a range of customers — those using PCs and not mobile phones," Maxwell said.