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Monday, April 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Q&A: Microsoft director discusses building momentum for mobility

Seattle Times technology reporter

Michael Wehrs keeps a close eye on the mobile phone business for Microsoft. As director of technology and standards at the company's mobile devices division, he watches carefully to see where the industry is moving and what venture capitalists are funding.

Wehrs serves on numerous technical committees and boards within the industry, helping it overcome barriers as it lurches toward common ground on such issues as technology standards. One day, our cellphones and other devices will be able to send pictures and messages to each other and connect to the Internet as easily as making a call. Reaching common standards will help that happen.

Recently, Wehrs represented Microsoft in an industrywide effort to establish a mobile top level domain, which would allow for new Web sites optimized for mobile devices.

Some of the fiercest competitors in the business hashed out details of the domain project, including Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Nokia and Hewlett-Packard. The effort proposes to create mobile-specific Web sites that end in .mobi or .mbl. It still needs final approval.

Wehrs sat down recently to talk about the project and where the industry is right now.

Q. What are some of the new technologies coming out that you're looking at?

Wehrs: We're looking at alternate user interfaces. Right now, everybody views a phone as a 12-button keypad and that's all you can really do with it. Some of the newer phones, (the Microsoft) Smartphone being an example, have softkeys which change their function based on what's on the menu.

There is going to come a time when there's enough processing power on these devices to actually have a combined interface of input from a keypad but also some level of voice interaction, more than voice dialing.

Q. Talk about the recent announcement on mobile top level domains.

Wehrs: If you create this new version of .com that will be the .mobi domain, you can do some very interesting things that mobile devices have unique capabilities of doing. ...

Today, you can generally browse through a Web site on your phone but no one can access your phone as a Web server. If you have pictures stored on your device, the only way that you could share them with me is to actually send them to me as a message.

But wouldn't it be easier if from my Web browser I could just browse to your phone and look at them? In order to do those kinds of functions ... I need changes to the way the domain naming systems work. I need them to perform at levels that they currently don't have to perform at.

Q. Does the pending sale of AT&T Wireless affect Microsoft in any way?

Wehrs: We've had a great partnership with AT&T Wireless, being that they launched the MPx (mobile phone) device with Motorola, and they've committed to launch additional products. They've been shipping the Pocket PC Phone Edition for a while now.

So we would think and certainly our anticipation is that the great relationship that's been built is going to carry over into the Cingular side of things as well.

Q. It seems that there is finally some momentum going with Microsoft's mobile division after several years in the industry. Was there something that triggered this?

Wehrs: There's no silver bullet that I can say, "This is the one that did it." There was a recognition that we had when we started this effort, back when we launched Pocket PC four years ago, that something was going to happen in the mobile phone industry.

It was reaching a level of penetration that the manner in which companies brought phones to the market was going to change. The industry was switching from vertically integrated manufacturing to horizontally integrated manufacturing.

That dynamic is something that we know how to compete very well in, and we kind of bet the strategy on that. That doesn't happen overnight. So you started to see early indicators, which no one really reported on.

Motorola would be a great case, where they started divesting a lot of their factories. We saw Ericsson starting to do the same thing. As that whole market shift takes place, our model continues to get more and more valid.

Q. Why has it taken so long for Microsoft to get to this point? It's been trying for years.

Wehrs: The time horizons that we look at, the business plans we put in place and where we expected to be in the market (are) where we are.

Q. But Microsoft wanted a Smartphone in the U.S. a lot earlier than what actually happened.

Wehrs: We would have preferred it but the important thing to realize is I'm not in complete control of when the market is at a point to accept it. For example, if GPRS roaming doesn't work, if CDMA 1x data is very spotty, for me to release a phone that is completely dependent on those data networks being robust and available doesn't make any sense. I can't do anything to make the operator roll out a network any faster. I can try to encourage it.

Luckily, the networks have improved dramatically over the last year and I think that's another key point. Data works now. You generally have wireless data coverage in GPRS and CDMA everywhere you go in the U.S. Certainly CDMA coverage is better than GPRS coverage right now.

(Note: GPRS, or general packet radio service, offers a continuous wireless connection to data networks and allows you to talk and receive e-mail at the same time. CDMA, or code-division multiple access, is a network technology that optimizes bandwidth and is used by Verizon Wireless and SprintPCS.)

Q. Why have data networks improved so much?

Wehrs: I think what happened is the operators recognized that voice will increasingly come under pressure pricing-wise, because there's little differentiation in voice. When was the last advertisement you saw that said, "Our voice quality is better than someone else's voice quality"?

It's no longer the position. It's all good enough. So the features can go along the fashion side of it — color screen, customizable ringtone — so you get that thread of user demands that will drive certain devices.

The other one is that wireless data is something that enterprises are willing to pay a lot for. And if customers can do more than just send 120 characters of text, that they'll pay more for it.

Q. What do you think about Linux moving onto cellphones? Motorola is looking at Linux, and that's no small company. Is it a threat to Microsoft?

Wehrs: Open source and what Linux is doing are two different kinds of things. If you look at what it costs from individual points along the product delivery curve, you could naively look at Linux and say it's less expensive.

If you look at it from the point of view of what does it cost to actually build a finished phone and deliver that phone with applications that someone wants, that gives you an apples-to-apples comparison. We've done this in the PC market, and we've done this in the mobile space. It's actually dramatically more expensive to use Linux.

Q. When are we going to see true 3G (third generation of wireless technology, which reaches broadband speeds)?

Wehrs: The interesting thing is there is no 3G police force, so nobody says, "OK, you have now achieved officially 3G." So some of it comes down to what definition do you want to use of what 3G is.

We use a definition of simultaneous voice and data likely up in the 300 to 400 (kilobits per second) sustained throughput. If you use those as general categorizations, you can start to see that kind of functionality on the networks that Verizon has been rolling out. You don't quite get there with (AT&T Wireless') EDGE (network). In Europe and where EDGE goes next is full wideband CDMA and that is definitely 3G.

(EDGE, or Enhanced Rates for Global Evolution, sends data at speeds between 100 and 130 kilobits per second. AT&T Wireless has launched a nationwide EDGE network.)

Q. What will we see 10 years from now in this business? Will we even have cellphones anymore?

Wehrs: I think the things that you will see are significant changes in user interface. The idea that you have to pick up and dial a phone probably will be gone 10 years from now. The mode switching between doing a data thing or a voice thing, that will all be gone. You'll generally interact with your device via voice or via screen, but the idea that you're doing either/or will go away. It will just be integrated in.

The devices will become combined and in general much smaller. The idea of personal area networks where devices share their capabilities and leverage each other, 10 years from now that will all work so that you may have a watch that you talk to. You may have just a headset that that becomes your earpiece and microphone. The actual phone will be something in your pocket or in your PC that you have with you, so it'll find a radio network to use and let you connect.

You will still have fashion statements in a phone. People will still have a cool device because it's cool to have one.

Q. What about five years from now?

Wehrs: You're still going to see predominantly handsets. You'll see the Moore's Law effect will have had a dramatic impact on the capability of these devices.

So whether they look like an appliance to you that just has a bunch of cool features, or whether they look like a device that you add new capabilities to, you'll see both in significant numbers, even though the hardware will probably be identical.

Half a gigabyte of storage, gigahertz processors, this will all be the norm five years out. Screen technologies and battery technologies that get you at that level of performance through an entire day of use will be the norm. You'll see multiple radios five years from now where today that's somewhat of a novelty.

You're going to see devices that simply work on whatever area network is out there, and they're smart enough to switch between them.

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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