Reader mail is my best source of inspiration for this column. I recently received a letter from a reader who's performing a proof of concept for his new application provision service but one puzzle stymies him: How do you make an email client such as Outlook available when users aren't logged onto the network (say, when they're on airplanes)? You could maintain the application on your customers' laptops and let them synch with the server when they can connect to the network, but that puts you right back in the locally installed applications business with an application that's only available on one device and that you don't control.

One solution to this problem might lie in products such as Outlook Mobile Manager, one of four products included in Microsoft's Mobile Information Server (MIS), which was announced last September and is in beta until sometime during the first half of 2001. The MIS platform extends the reach of Microsoft .NET Enterprise applications, enterprise data, and intranet content to mobile users. This week, I'll introduce Outlook Mobile Manager; next week, I'll address specific questions about what the product can do in a corporate or application service provider (ASP) server-based computing environment. If you have such questions, email them to me, and I'll do my best to find answers for you.

Outlook Mobile Manager is the desktop-only component of MIS, a larger set of technologies for wireless server-based computing. Mobile Information 2001 Server Enterprise Edition makes Windows and Web-enabled applications available to corporate clients that run Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) devices. Mobile Information 2001 Server Carrier Edition works like the Enterprise Edition but adds connection to a data center and is intended for service providers. Microsoft Outlook Mobile Access combines with either MIS or Exchange 2000 or Exchange 5.5 to make Outlook available to WAP-enabled devices (for now, WAP phones only). Finally, Outlook Mobile Manager is a desktop application that makes Microsoft email available to any email–addressable wireless device. The software requires Exchange 2000 or Exchange 5.5 or any version of Outlook.

So how will this help you make email available to offline users? Obviously, you can't use a wired connection on an airplane. You can't use a wireless connection, either (except for the horrendously expensive AirFone that's available on some airplanes), unless you want to take your chance at the 70 lashes the Saudi Arabian government gave a Saudi army captain for not turning off his cell phone while in a taxiing airplane. What you could do, however, is run Outlook Mobile Manager with Outlook on a terminal server for client use. While you're still on the ground, you could forward your email to another device such as a wireless telephone or handheld PC. You could then answer or delete your email from the wireless device while it's offline, then re-synch when you're back on the ground. You'd need a wireless device that doesn't automatically connect to a network when you turn it on (which eliminates cell phones), but because you'd have email on the handheld device instead of just a protocol to connect to the application where the email lies, this strategy could work with devices capable of storing email.

Wireless Web devices aren't desktop PCs by any stretch of the imagination, and Outlook Mobile Manager is supposed to reflect this reality. For example, you can use filters to determine where email is forwarded, and the tool is supposed to "learn" which messages to forward by monitoring your usage. In addition, you can set up the system to use Intellishrink, which condenses email text (e.g., by removing all vowels). Rdng ml wth n vwls tks sm gttng sd t, bt spps y cld lrn. (Try reading that sentence aloud with your teeth clenched.)

As you can see, the MIS platform seems to focus on Outlook. A company called MATERNA wants to extend that platform, however; its Anny Way Windows 2000 WAP Server product will allow the rapid development of mobile extensions to Windows 2000 applications such as Excel, Word, and SQL Server database applications.

Outlook Mobile Manager could be one possible answer to the problem of making centrally controlled programs available offline. I'm sure you have questions about its practical applications, so next week, let's find some answers.