Microsoft dials up emerging-market phone push

Redmond announces plans for OneApp, software that enables feature phones to access various mobile Internet services.

Microsoft on Monday announced plans for mobile software that aims to allow people in emerging markets to access various Internet programs using lower-end feature phones.

The software, known as OneApp, is due out later this year and should allow people in emerging markets to access services like Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft's Windows Live Messenger using the kinds of inexpensive phones most often sold for $20 or $30. Microsoft said Blue Label Telecoms in South Africa will be the first to use OneApp and will use it to offer phones that ship with a dozen mobile applications, including a mobile wallet program as well as the social-networking tools.

A mock-up of OneApp running on a feature phone allowing access to Facebook and other applications. Microsoft

While not an operating system, OneApp is a software environment within which many kinds of programs can run. The key to OneApp, Microsoft said, is the fact that the applications and data run largely from the cloud. That means that OneApp can run on phones with rather meager memory and processing abilities. OneApp itself takes up only about 150 kilobytes of memory, as opposed to the many megabytes often used on programs for smartphones. Individual applications can be as small as 10 to 15 kilobytes.

"When you launch an application, (OneApp) only loads the part of the application that you want," said Amit Mital, the corporate vice president in charge of Microsoft's "unlimited potential" unit, which focuses on emerging markets. "We use very intelligent and sophisticated caching. The rest of it sits in the cloud."

Microsoft has been working on OneApp for the past year and a half, noting that there are hundreds of millions of feature phones in emerging markets, most of which aren't being used to run software.

"People have used them just for voice and SMS" (Short Message Service), Mital said. "What we want to do is unlock their power so they can be used from a broader set of services and applications."

The move comes as Microsoft is also struggling to keep up in the smartphone race against heightened competition from the likes of Apple, Google, Research In Motion, and others. Microsoft said that OneApp is separate from its Windows Mobile efforts.

Mital stressed that OneApp is an adjunct to Windows Mobile, which is still the company's bet for smartphones, and is largely aimed at emerging markets, rather than developed ones.

OneApp is Microsoft's plan for developing markets for the here and now. Longer-term, Microsoft has been exploring a concept called "phone plus," in which a smartphone could be plugged into a television and keyboard to act as a sort of basic computer.

With OneApp, Microsoft will find itself competing against applications written for Sun's J2ME.

Mital said that the big advantage of OneApp is that programs written for it should run on most OneApp-enabled phones, something he said is often not the case with Java.

"If you build an app for one phone it may or may not work on another phone," Mital said. "The development cost is extremely excessive. You go through the development cycle over and over. That is just debilitating."

For now, Microsoft is working directly with select partners to develop OneApp, but eventually Microsoft plans to release a software development kit to allow others to write their own OneApp programs. Programs for OneApp can be written using tools like XML and JavaScript, Mital said. "The world does not need another new programming paradigm. We were very determined to use existing programming paradigms."

In addition to Blue Label Telecoms, which is launching shortly, Mital said that Microsoft hopes to announce one or two more carriers using OneApp before the end of the year.

Although there are plenty of feature phones still shipping in developed markets, such as the United States and Europe, Mital said Microsoft is focusing on emerging markets.

"Right now my team is extremely focused on emerging markets," Mital said. "There's literally billions of customers in these markets."

 

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