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Microsoft's phone talk is all business

Rather than touting fancy new features that compete head-on with the iPhone, the software maker is courting the people who help businesses decide what phones to buy--the IT geeks.

Well, It doesn't appear that Microsoft will be taking direct aim at the iPhone on Tuesday.

Rather, the software maker is playing to its strengths, announcing a new piece of server software to help businesses manage a company's worth of smartphones.

That doesn't mean Microsoft isn't interested in say, adding a full Web browser into Windows Mobile, according to Scott Horn, a general manager in Microsoft's mobile device unit.

"Do I see a path where we are going to have a phenomenal browsing experience," Horn said. "Yes, I do."

But the bulk of Microsoft's announcements for Tuesday focus on the company's enterprise strengths. The company is announcing a new product, known as System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008 and noting that it is providing start-up funds for Enterprise Mobile, a new Boston-based service provider that will help companies manage the process of doling out smartphones to large workforces.

Focusing on the IT staff is not a bad way to go, considering they are often the ones who decide which phones get bought with the corporate dollar and also which ones are allowed behind the company firewall.

"Smartphones can enhance productivity and save costs for employees throughout the company," Horn said. "CIOs are waking up and saying I want to make smartphones and Windows Mobile first class citizens on the network. (They are saying) 'I want to move beyond a tactical solution for e-mail and for a few people.' "

The new software allows businesses to push out software updates to phones over the air and also provides a VPN system for Windows Mobile devices to get secure access to corporate data, something that in the past has typically required third-party software.

But even that product is some months away. It is only in beta, with the final version set to ship some time in the first half of next year. Microsoft also isn't saying how much the product will cost and notes that existing phones will need an upgrade to work with the software. That's a challenge, because typically the device makers and the carriers need to give the go-ahead for upgrades and they tend not to be all that keen on them since it adds hassle and support calls without providing either with new revenue.

Palm, for example, says the Treo 750 will get the upgrade on AT&T's network, but won't say whether other phones will get the upgrade nor whether more than one network will allow the upgrade.

While Microsoft isn't ready to announce any new iPhone-inspired features, Horn was ready to defend Windows Mobile against Apple's technology, though he wouldn't use the "I" word.

"The list of things that we do that the phone you mentioned doesn't do is a pretty long list," Horn said.

And although Apple may have shipped 1 million iPhones last quarter, that's still a fraction of the 11 million Windows Mobile devices that shipped last year. "We'll sell over 20 (million) this year," Horn said.