Yesterday, Microsoft and its partners announced plans for several portable devices and services aimed at ending the dominance of Research In Motion (RIM), currently the leading supplier of portable email devices. For Microsoft customers who have standardized on the company's technology, the announcements are particularly interesting because Microsoft's push email solutions will be significantly less expensive than competing products and services.

The key point, of course, is that bit about standardizing on Microsoft technology. If you want to take advantage of Microsoft's push email solutions, you'll need Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 on the server end and Windows Mobile 5.0-based portable devices on the receiving end. If you have these pieces in place, getting push email is a no-cost upgrade: You simply need to install Exchange Server 2003 Service Pack 2 (SP2), which includes Exchange Direct Push technology.

I've discussed Direct Push technology in Windows IT Pro UPDATE before, but the short version is that it emulates true push email technology by maintaining an HTTP Secure (HTTPS) connection between each mobile device and the server, ensuring that new and changed email messages, contacts, calendar items, and tasks are updated to the mobile device almost immediately. RIM has been using a wireless email solution in its BlackBerry devices for years, though its solution naturally works with non-Exchange offerings such as IBM Lotus/Domino and Novell GroupWise, in addition to Exchange.

So what are these announcements? First, a slew of PDA and cell phone makers are releasing Windows Mobile 5.0-comaptible devices. The most notable is HP's long-awaited iPAQ hw6900 Mobile Messenger PDA phone, and the successor to the popular hw6500 series. Like many of today's smart phone-type devices, the hw6900 mimics a RIM BlackBerry or Palm Treo, with a full-featured thumb-sized keyboard and a large screen.

Smart phones are simply expensive paperweights without the accompanying online services. So service providers such as Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile in the United States and Orange and Vodafone in Europe have announced new, low-cost offerings that take advantage of the devices' Direct Push support. These offerings will allow non-Exchange corporate customers to economically access push email functionality, Microsoft says.

The market for mobile email is huge and growing fast. According to analyst estimates, there are almost 10 million mobile email customers worldwide, and RIM is the number-one player with 4.3 million subscribers. Microsoft's position in this market is miniscule today--less than one million users, according to estimates--but that's because the software giant didn't have all the pieces in place until recently.

Also, it takes eons for cell phone makers to ship devices with the latest OS version. Only now are Windows Mobile 5.0-based phones starting to ship in volume in the United States, for example. Microsoft is quick to mention that there are 47 device makers in 55 countries making Windows Mobile-based devices, but only a small portion of them run Windows Mobile 5.0. That, finally, is changing.

Although entering this market is an obvious and even overdue move for Microsoft, my own stance on mobile messaging is somewhat mixed. Whereas it's impossible to deny the flexibility and productivity benefits of push email solutions, I've always felt that people who make themselves too available in this fashion are setting themselves up for unrealistic expectations by their coworkers. Surely there is a middle ground between 24/7 access and the more typical 9-to-5 schedule that's dominated the white collar landscape since its inception.