Sunday, April 21, 2024

Making Outlook Mobile

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The convergence of office productivity software and new forms of messaging continues with Microsoft co-opting a small Swedish start-up’s mobile messaging solution.

Three-year-old Stockholm-based General Wireless’s SMS Executive add-on to Microsoft Outlook enables office workers to send SMS messages from the desktop. An enhanced version, released earlier this week, also enables them to receive SMS messages.

Last month, those efforts received a sizable vote of support from Microsoft, which added the application to its Office Marketplace gallery of partners in advance of the Office 2003 launch in third quarter. The new version of Outlook in Office 2003 thus will highlight support for integrated SMS, available if customers also buy into General Wireless’ SMS Executive.

The application integrates throughout the Outlook e-mail client, adding a small “New SMS” button to Outlook’s toolbar, and replacing the envelope icon in users’ Inboxes with a small mobile phone, denoting a mobile message.

When an Outlook user receives an SMS sent from a mobile phone, the text message behaves like an e-mail: recipients can reply to the mobile phone, or forward the message to other mobile phones or e-mail addresses.

Additionally, users can configure rules to send themselves SMS reminders from calendar appointments or important e-mails. The system also offers the capability to sidestep the message-length constraints of SMS by automatically splitting messages that are longer than 160 characters into two or more consecutive messages.

“Since it is still a hassle writing messages on the small keyboard of modern telephones, using a familiar tool such as Outlook and a real keyboard will help overcome the time it takes to write an SMS,” said Robert Hägg, Product Manager of Office and Business Tools for Microsoft Sweden. “I have used General Wireless SMS since a few months back, and strongly believe it will be a success … interest is high from media and customers.”

The system also supports billing to an individual user’s phone bill, or to a corporate account.

The deal opens up new revenue opportunities for General Wireless, which typically licenses the application to wireless carriers, who in turn can offer a rebranded version to enterprise clients and consumer mobile subscribers. The firm currently works with Swedish carriers Tele2 and NetCom and last month signed international carrier o2, which is marketing the offering to its subscribers.

“There’s no charge for the software, but when people are starting to use it, the traffic will be charged on their normal phone bill,” said Anders Hardebring, chief executive of General Wireless. “The program is an extension of their mobile subscription. And it’s branded with the o2 logo — [customers] see it as a service offered by o2, and the operators like that effect as well.”

At the moment, SMS Executive support is available only in Scandinavia, but the company is close to signing a carrier partner in North America.

While several small software firms offer plug-ins enabling users to send SMS messages from other apps, including Outlook, Microsoft during the past several months has started moving to formally address wireless-enabling its Office software.

In February, the company struck a deal with Chinese-language Web portal Sina that linked Office XP’s Outlook 2002 and Sina’s Internet-based SMS service — paving the way for Office users to send text messages to Chinese mobile phones. Along with the General Wireless arrangement, such moves speak to the software giant’s increasing efforts to leverage wireless text messaging in its core suite of enterprise productivity tools.

“SMS as a way to communicate has grown in popularity since a few years back, and especially younger people are used to this mean of communicating short messages,” Hägg said. “In a way, using SMS fits in somewhere between sending a mail, and calling the person. It is like MSN Messenger, but not in real-time — but you know that everyone will always have their mobile phone with them.”

In addition to beefing up SMS support in the upcoming version of Office, the productivity suite also is expected to take greater advantage of the company’s public and enterprise instant messaging platforms.

Furthermore, Microsoft is also looking to get a better hold of the international SMS market in other areas of its business, as well. The company recenly signed European wireless carrier Orange to a deal that will offer mobile subscribers an SMS-based front-end to Microsoft’s MSN Messenger IM network. Potentially, the deal offers Microsoft a chance at boosting its user base signficiatnly — Paris-based Orange serves abotu 35 million users throughout the Continent.

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of

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