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Wednesday, February 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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We're pals, Ballmer tells wireless world

Seattle Times technology reporter

BARCELONA, Spain — On Valentine's Day, Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer was all about showing the love.

At the 3GSM World Congress, a wireless conference that has drawn 50,000 attendees, Ballmer set out Tuesday to prove his company's dedication to the mobile industry. During an hourlong keynote speech, he showed off Microsoft's latest mobile technologies and delivered this message: Microsoft is here to partner, not to dominate.

The message may not be new in the PC world, where years of antitrust battles have restrained the company's bullying tactics. But it is important in the wireless industry, where Microsoft is a relative newbie.

Only three years ago, it launched the first phone with a Microsoft Windows operating system. Today, the OS is on version 5, while the company's product is in more than 100 devices with 102 operators in 55 countries.

"Many people ask me if we are your friends or your foes," Ballmer said. "We come as a friend."

That message threaded a series of announcements and demonstrations in front of a packed auditorium on the second day of the four-day conference.

Topping the list of partnerships was one with Virgin Mobile, a youth-oriented wireless service started by Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group. The service, BT Movio, will deliver live digital TV on the phone, a first in Europe.

Trilogy, the phone carrying the service, was developed by Taiwan handset maker HTC and comes loaded with Windows Mobile 5.0, a competitor to market-leading Symbian.

The service is set to launch this summer at an undisclosed price.

Ballmer also announced the availability of a business-oriented feature and BlackBerry rival called Communicator Mobile, which extends the company's Live Communications Server to the mobile phone.

The server, which provides companywide instant-messaging capabilities, lets workers track down colleagues and determine the best way to contact them: cellphone, instant messaging or e-mail.

But Ballmer's more prevalent theme was impressing upon the crowd — made up of wireless carriers, vendors and others — that Microsoft wants to be a part of their world.

Ballmer said the timing is right. Cellular networks are much faster speeds and handsets are more powerful — like "mini-PCs," he said. That combination of factors has led the company to turn ship.

"I spend more time meeting with telecom executives these days than I do with any other segment," he said. The top priorities, Ballmer said, are not to sell the new version of Windows and Outlook and Exchange, but to drive Windows Mobile penetration to help expand the market.

"It's taken awhile and come a long way," he said, "but the infrastructure is there, and now we have the devices."

For some, that could sound daunting. But Ballmer, at the conference for the first time, said he didn't want to give the wrong impression. He easily engaged the audience and effortlessly drew laughs.

He joked about Communicator Mobile and how he can set his preferences so that his wife can always be put through immediately — "if I'm on the phone, on the PC, or in front of my set-top box," he said. After all, it's Valentine's Day, and "I need her to reach me at all costs."

Kidding aside, he told the audience that, yes, Microsoft wants to build the servers, run the operating system on the computer and develop for the mobile phone. But, he said, it's not a take-it-all-or-leave-it proposition.

"We do recognize and understand the world is a heterogeneous world," he said. "We are trying to make Windows Mobile work with Windows PC, and Windows servers work brilliantly, but we can provide it extensibly."

Ballmer listed a couple of examples of how it was doing that. One partnership is with Sony Ericsson. The handset maker recently licensed Microsoft's ActiveSync protocol to help wireless users get information from Microsoft Exchange servers.

"We've had no troubles working with Microsoft," said Thomas Engelmark, a Sony Ericsson product manager. "They've been very eager to make it happen."

Vodafone, the largest BlackBerry seller outside of North America, said it started working with Microsoft only a year ago.

Peter Day, Vodafone's senior manager of data propositions, said that worldwide, only 3 percent of people with e-mail boxes are able to access them through a mobile device. Any publicity Microsoft can bring to drive growth is a good thing.

"It's not a competitive situation. All that noise will only create more interest," he said.

Still, the industry has taken awhile to warm up to the software giant.

The concern is Microsoft will want to own the phone, leaving the carrier as only a "dumb" communications pipe. Carriers want to be service providers, too.

"Operators have been worried about Microsoft wanting in," Day said. "If Microsoft had the relationships, what does that leave for us?"

Day, who attended Ballmer's keynote, said he thought at first Microsoft didn't understand the mobile "ecosystem." After emerging from a development hole a year ago when it launched 5.0, it came off as naive, he said.

But in the past six months Microsoft has started to deliver a new message, the one Ballmer relayed Tuesday.

"What Microsoft had to realize was that they were part of the value chain," Day said. "I think they've learned a bit of that."

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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