Microsoft further extended its reach into wireless push e-mail technology this week by naming four carriers (including including Vodafone) and four new Windows Mobile-based smart phones and handhelds (from vendors including Sony Ericsson) that will support its Direct Push technology.

The carriers all said in the announcement from the 3GSM World Conference 2006 in Barcelona that they will provide free upgrades to devices running Windows Mobile 5.0 with Messaging and Security Feature Pack (MSFP) by Microsoft to enable the Direct Push functionality.

Reacting to the announcement Wednesday several business users and IT managers, running wireless e-mail from Research In Motion, said they welcomed the progress that Microsoft has made into wireless e-mail, given NTP's ongoing patent lawsuit (All you need to know) against RIM's BlackBerry wireless e-mail service.

Windows Mobile needs to be better
But users and analysts also said Windows Mobile 5.0 needs to be improved to be widely adopted by end users.

John Halamka, CIO at Caregroup Healthcare System in Boston, supports 500 RIM users and has rigorously tested a Palm Treo 700w, but has found it wanting when compared to the BlackBerry.

"Direct Push is good, but my experience with all Microsoft mobile technologies is that they are not as easy to use as BlackBerry," he said. RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Server with Exchange is "already seamless and highly reliable," he said. Yet he called the Microsoft mobile client "clunky."

Emcor Group, a construction and building services company in Norwalk, Connecticut, has about 500 RIM users and deploys Lotus Notes and Lotus Domino server to 9,000 users, so Direct Push from Microsoft holds no interest, said Emcor CIO Joe Puglisi.

"We can't justify a total change in architecture just for remote mail," he said.

However, an IT manager who supports 220 attorneys and legal staff who use BlackBerry said the Microsoft advances are encouraging.

"Microsoft's entry into any technology arena ought to seriously scare competitors in that space," said Frank Gillman, director of technology at Allen Matkins, a law firm in Los Angeles. "Companies heavily invested in the Microsoft Exchange environment will see this as a viable alternative for wireless e-mail. We would too."

John Starkweather, group product manager at Microsoft, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that the advent of wireless e-mail via Exchange Server 2003 Service Pack 2 and Windows Mobile 5.0 devices would vastly increase access to wireless e-mail.

He said there are potentially tens of millions of business users, compared with 8 million to 10 million who are using systems from RIM, Good Technology and others.

Technologies from RIM and others often require an additional and costly e-mail server, Starkweather noted.

Growing support from carriers
About 100 carriers currently support Microsoft's Direct Push, Starkweather said, but only four were named, Cingular in the US, as well as Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone. All four announced free upgrades to customers with Windows Mobile 5.0, which enables Direct Push. Microsoft made its announcement on Monday at the 3GSM Congress. Windows Mobile 5.0 was announced last May, with Direct Push and MSFP functions announced shortly afterward.

"The carriers are reacting to a business opportunity, since they realise they have tens of millions of business customers, all potentially interested," Starkweather said.

In addition to the four named carriers, Microsoft said Palm and I-Mate reaffirmed commitments to MSFP upgrades, according to a Microsoft statement. And four new Windows Mobile-based devices were unveiled, which ship with Direct Push technology.

Cingular said in a statement that MSFP will be upgradeable in the first half of the year on its Cingular 2125 smart phone and 8100 series Pocket PCs.

Still not user friendly
Industry analysts said despite Microsoft's announcement this week, they still feel Windows Mobile 5.0 is not user friendly, and they worry about the ease of making the MSFP upgrade.

"Ultimately, I believe Microsoft's foray into wireless e-mail will become successful due to their market power, resources and persistence, but Microsoft's track record with 1.0 releases has been uninspiring, and therefore I believe it will take time for Microsoft to improve their product to the point where many users begin switching to it," said Todd Kort, an analyst at Gartner.

He added that it is "naive" to think that BlackBerry users will suddenly switch to Direct Push, given RIM's eight years in the market. But when Microsoft partners develop devices that are easier to use, and when companies begin pushing customer relationship management and sales force automation tools to mobile devices, in addition to e-mail, RIM will probably begin losing customers, Kort added.

When analyst Jack Gold - of J. Gold Associates - said Microsoft and its partners are undoubtedly trying to take advantage of RIM's legal woes with this week's news. But Gold noted that Microsoft faces its own patent infringement lawsuit from Visto over Direct Push. The case, filed in December in US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, involves three Visto patents. Microsoft will not comment on the lawsuit.

Gold also worries that the MSFP upgrade could be cumbersome and won't be available for several months. And once it is available, it will reduce the number of devices that users can choose from, Gold said. "If you want your execs to use whatever device du jour they fancy, Microsoft can't handle that," he said.