The evolution of UC with Windows Mobile devices

Much has been written about Microsoft's Unified Communications initiative in terms of Office Communications Server 2007 and Exchange 2007. The "missing link" is the ability for today's mobile devices - handheld PDA phones and smartphones - to integrate with those server products for a total UC experience for end users. This week, we take a look at the current state of Windows Mobile devices and how they are designed to work within the Microsoft UC infrastructure.

The evolution of Windows Mobile

The evolution of Microsoft's mobile device software has been interesting to behold. Derived from Windows CE 3.0, Pocket PC 2000 was designed as a competitor to the Palm OS that ran on the popular Palm Pilot PDAs. Most of the devices running PPC 2000 were PDAs. However, there were also a few Pocket PC 2000 devices with cell phone capability.

The older PPC devices were much bulkier and heavier than today's PDA phones. Most used large compact flash for removable storage. Although some models had wireless networking support, they weren't commonly used to remotely connect to company networks.

The next generation of Windows for mobile devices was Pocket PC 2002. Networking was much more of a focus in this version, with built in support for PPTP Virtual Private Networking (VPN) and a Terminal Services client. These features made it easier for users to connect their mobile devices to corporate networks. There were separate versions for Pocket PC phones and smartphones.

Windows Mobile 2003 came in four different editions: Pocket PC Premium, Pocket PC Professional, Pocket PC Phone edition and Smartphone edition. The premium edition included advanced features such as support for L2TP/IPsec VPNs. Next, Windows Mobile 2003 SE (Second Edition) came out, and included support for Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) to make wireless networking connections more secure. By this time, the OS had fully morphed from that of a standalone PDA to that of a true mobile communications device.

The next big step was Windows Mobile 5, which was released in 2005. This took the handheld devices further toward UC integration by supporting DirectPush functionality when connecting to an Exchange 2003 SP2 server. DirectPush is patterned after the push technology made popular by the BlackBerry, where messages are sent to the handheld device by the server as they arrive at the server, rather than waiting for the client software on the device to send a request to download the messages.

Windows Mobile 6

Finally, early last year, Microsoft released Windows Mobile 6, the current version of the mobile OS. This one comes in three editions: Classic (for the increasingly rare handheld computers/PDAs that don't have built in cell phone functionality), Standard (for Windows Mobile-based smartphones without touchscreens) and Professional (for full-fledged Pocket PCs with cell phone capability).

WM 6 was built to integrate tightly with Exchange Server 2007. It added support for VoIP with Acoustic Echo Cancellation (AEC) and the MSRT Audio codec, along with many other enhancements.

Office Communicator for Windows Mobile

Now Windows Mobile devices are able to fully participate in a UC system. Office Communicator 2007's mobile version -- sometimes referred to as CoMo -- can be installed on WM 5 (Pocket PC and Smartphone editions) and WM 6 (Professional and Classic editions) to connect to an Office Communications Server (OCS). This allows mobile clients to access presence status information and the company's address book, and to engage in instant messaging and voice communications (using the wireless provider's network), along with accessing Exchange calendaring information and distribution groups.

Users can search for other users within the organization and see their presence status, then communicate with them via the most appropriate channel (IM, phone, e-mail). They can also exchange IMs with other people outside their organizations, because the Office Communicator mobile client integrates with public IM services such as Yahoo.

The Office Communicator client authenticates the OCS server, so the root certificate must be installed on the mobile device. The mobile client can connect to the server either via TCP or HTTPS/TLS. If the client is connecting over an external wireless network or mobile phone network, TLS is generally used. TCP is more often used when clients connect via an internal wireless network that is protected from the outside by a firewall.

The mobile client can run at the same time that the same user is running Office Communicator 2007 on the desktop or laptop, thanks to support for Multiple Points of Presence (MPOP).

Unification in a mobile world

For true unification of communications to occur, users must be able to communicate freely in a variety of different ways, regardless of where they are and what type of device (desktop, laptop, mobile phone) they're using. Windows Mobile devices strive for that goal by including more support, with each version, for integration of phone, SMS, e-mail, and IM communications.

Thus far, all the speculation and rumors about new features for Windows Mobile 7 have to do with its touch-focused interface. We're hoping for more and better communications options, as well. We also look forward to a new version of Office Communicator mobile edition that will come even closer to providing mobile users with all the capabilities of the desktop client. There's little doubt, with today's camera phones and increasingly powerful devices, one day we will have mobile videoconferencing capability built into our devices. There are already third-party services such as KTvid that enable this on WM 5 and 6 phones.

Meanwhile, Microsoft faces competition in the mobile UC market from other vendors such as Cisco and Nokia. The next few years are sure to be a wild ride when it comes to mobile communications.

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