Yesterday, at the Wireless World East conference in New York City, Microsoft made a series of announcements about its Microsoft Mobile Information Server (MIS) 2002 product. For enterprise administrators, the product's most significant new features include lower pricing ($20 per user for mobile access to Microsoft Outlook data) and the availability of prepackaged "pilot-in-a-box" programs with partners that include Compaq and Hewlett-Packard (HP). But the big surprise is that this version will be the final release in the MIS product line; next year, Microsoft will move the MIS feature set directly into its Exchange Server and Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server products.

MIS 2002 is an important product for administrators who support Pocket PCs in enterprise environments. MIS 2002 is the delivery vehicle for ActiveSync, which lets users synchronize Pocket Outlook directly with an Exchange server instead of requiring each user to synchronize with his or her desktop computer. MIS 2002 also improves support for Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) devices and offers superior security and authentication for organizations that provide messaging to mobile users.

A few days ago, I spoke with Chuck Sabin, Microsoft's MIS product manager. When I asked which MIS 2002 features administrators will find most interesting, Sabin pointed to simplified deployment, including a new Enterprise Setup Tool that lets administrators provision groups of users that have similar functionality. The software also features a personal setup tool that IT managers can use to let users change phone numbers and set preferences for functions such as how and when to receive messages.

Sabin was particularly excited about the new partnerships with Compaq and HP. "This is the first time we've been able to work with companies that can offer a complete pilot-in-a-box. For a fixed cost, you can get a set number of users up and running, and if it works you can continue adding users for a predictable cost."

I also spoke with Kurt Hetzel, global service manager for HP Consulting, who's in charge of HP Express Service for MIS 2002. "We provide a complete standalone environment—including Exchange Server, Active Directory (AD), MIS, and ISA—running on a rack of servers," he said. "Our consultants connect that \[environment\] into a corporate intranet, but it's a complete standalone system. If the customer decides this isn't what they want, we can just take our complete rack of servers back. We provide Jornada devices to the end users. The pilot includes an 802.11 wireless Access Point. A company we work with, Mobilsys, provides secure notification. A 60-day pilot runs $50,000 to $100,000, depending on the applications a customer wants to set up. Typically, it takes less than a month to get the installation done from the time a purchase order is written."

Compaq's approach is slightly different. According to Bill Carlisle, director of Compaq's Microsoft Solutions Group, "The Compaq solution for MIS includes a Proliant server with MIS 2002, 10 iPAQ Pocket PCs, and installation services that include not only MIS but also a connection to the customer's Exchange server," Carlisle explained. "It's a complete package—at around $25,000. We use CDPD \[Cellular Digital Packet Data\]—Sierra AirCard 300 wireless modems—and the package includes the necessary contract with a wireless provider. If a customer wants to use WAP phones or try out pagers and Short Message Service (SMS) for notification, we can do that, too. In our experience, WAP phones aren't as prevalent in North America."

To get a customer perspective, I spoke with John Prince, core technology manager for connectivity at Conoco (a large energy company). "Our pilot included 50 iPAQ devices, using Sprint PCS Wireless service and Sierra AirCard 510 wireless modems," Prince said. "It wasn't difficult to set up; we've had excellent support from Microsoft. We expect MIS to be part of our corporate global standard. We consider the product very affordable. There are really no red flags; our infrastructure already includes Exchange 2000 Server, so we had that hurdle surpassed. Sites that are still on Exchange 5.5 will have to upgrade \[to use MIS 2002\]."

Future releases of Exchange will include Outlook Mobile Access (OMA); security and authentication for mobile users will become part of the ISA server product. "Mobility should be a part of everything that we do, part of every enterprise offering we have in the market," said Sabin. "It makes sense for OMA to be a core component within Exchange Server."

Sabin expects a new version of Exchange with built-in OMA to be available "in about 12 months" at a price "similar to that of Outlook Web Access." The product will contain all of OMA's features, including ActiveSync, the capability to browse for WAP-enabled devices, and paging/notification.

Why separate mobile messaging from security and authentication? "There was a point where we thought a separate middleware product was the way to handle a mobile workforce," explained Sabin, "but we realize now that the platform needs to inherently support mobile users. In a campus environment, you might not require separate authentication \[for mobile users\]—if you do need it, you can get ISA from us or other products from third parties."

Sabin also offered a tantalizing hint about Microsoft's plans to support Palm OS-based devices, which compete with Pocket PCs. "We support Palm today through WAP browsers," said Sabin. "We don't currently have a synchronization capability for Palm in the MIS 2002 product, but you can rest assured that we're actively seeking additional device support for future OMA versions." Prince also told me that he's heard Microsoft is working on direct support for RIM BlackBerry devices.

Correction
In my February 7 Pocket PC Perspectives column, I said that only Cingular supports the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) nationwide in the United States. I've since learned that several other carriers also support GSM. Although I regret the error, I remain concerned about limited availability of GSM coverage in many areas of the United States. You can find a complete list of GSM carriers—with coverage maps for each—on the GSM World Web site.