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IBM, Openwave team for phone services

Big Blue and the wireless software maker unveil a 10-year development agreement to upgrade equipment that IBM sells to telephone service providers.

IBM and wireless software maker Openwave unveiled a 10-year development agreement Monday to upgrade equipment that IBM sells to telephone service providers.

The two companies want to enhance IBM's Service Provider Delivery Environment, or SPDE (pronounced "speedy"), which is the latest example of so-called "mobile middleware" created so telephone companies can offer new services to customers without the typically expensive and lengthy network upgrades.

IBM plans to incorporate into SPDE most of the wireless messaging software from Openwave, which also makes the Web browser now inside tens of millions of the world's Web-enabled cell phones, IBM General Manager Adel Al-Saleh said. Openwave products let phones send and receive different types of e-mails, including some with photo attachments.

Usually, adding a new service such as wireless instant messaging involves updating nearly every piece of a telephone company's network, from the computers that do the billing to the handsets themselves. The expense recently drove Cingular Wireless and Sprint PCS to use middleware maker Seven to perform nearly every phase of a new service letting customers access their office e-mail on handsets.

Al-Saleh said that SPDE lets a carrier offer e-mail and at a cost much cheaper than an extensive network upgrade. "There's really nothing else like it," he said.

But even the mighty IBM can't offer the one thing most carriers are looking for: data services that people won't be able to resist, analysts say.

Carriers are selling bundles of wireless e-mails, offering games that can burn up a caller's minutes or even putting cameras into phones in the hopes of finding a new revenue source. So far, the earliest services haven't proved too successful, according to many industry analysts.

"It's not the platform like SPDE; its getting customers excited about mobile data," said Joe Laszlo, a wireless analyst with Jupiter Media Metrix. "I don't see how they can deliver that magic world for carriers."

SPDE was introduced in February at a telephone conference in Cannes, France. Since then, IBM said three carriers have begun using it: Far Eas Tone in Taiwan; Orange, a wireless service division of France Telecom, and British carrier MMO2, a former unit of British Telecommunications.