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ISPs Microsoft's newest target

The software giant's combination of its Internet-based server applications suite and corporate messaging server software is key to the plan to attract ISPs.

Microsoft is set to jump into the Internet messaging market later this year with the much anticipated convergence of its Internet-based server applications suite and corporate messaging server software.

Part of Microsoft's BackOffice family, the Microsoft Commercial Internet System (MCIS) suite of Internet-based server applications includes Internet access, Web hosting, and e-commerce software will be combined with the next version of the software giant's Exchange messaging server, called Platinum.

"We've always said we would converge the two, but the final straw of convergence will take place in the Platinum release," said Dave Malcolm, the Exchange product manager.

"The goal is to make Exchange scale from small businesses to the largest ISP. The ISP market is very important for us," he said.

Plans to develop a common technology base with MCIS and Exchange have been floating around Microsoft's Redmond, Washington, headquarters for a couple of years, but now the company says everything is in place for the product to ship with Exchange Platinum, which is set for release soon after Windows 2000.

Officially, Windows 2000 is slated to ship toward the end of the year. Beta testers have pegged the release for October, but the company has been hesitant to fix a date, especially because the project has slipped a number of times.

With the onslaught and popularity of Web portals, the Internet has transformed into a central location for people to access aggregate and personal information. Companies like Netscape and Sun Microsystems, under the Sun-Netscape Alliance, and Lotus Development offer Web-based applications that organize task management, Webmail, address book, and calendar information in their enterprise products. Sun and Netscape have made some efforts to sell their products to ISPs as well.

Just last month, Microsoft jumped into the growing online scheduling market with the purchase of Jump Networks, maker of a technology that lets users access their email, address books, and calendars from any Internet-connected computer. The software giant plans to include the new technology in its MSN service.

With the MCIS/Exchange combination, Steve Robins, an analyst with the Yankee Group, said Microsoft is looking to boost the salability of Exchange and give MCSI the marketing momentum currently behind Exchange.

"Exchange is a stronger product for them in a marketing sense. It's positioned better," said Robins. "MCSI hasn't taken off much."

The latest release of MCSI, version 2.0, has been shipping since May 1998.

Version 2.0 is targeted at ISPs and other service providers who handle outsourcing of business applications for corporate customers and for hosting Web sites. Based on Windows NT, MCIS is designed to interoperate with Unix systems, which now dominate the national ISP market.

With the release of Exchange Platinum, both systems will use the same code, Malcolm said.

Platinum, the follow-up messaging server to Exchange 5.5, will include tighter integration with remote access devices like two-way pagers, Windows CE, cell phones, and unified messaging applications. It will also feature phone integration software that will allow users to check schedules, email messages, and other simple applications over the phone.

The name for the combined product will be chosen later in the year, Malcolm said.