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IBM, Sprint to jointly develop wireless data services

The companies are expected to announce they are teaming to allow businesses to use Sprint's PCS Wireless Web to access email and other corporate Internet applications.

IBM and Sprint have agreed to jointly develop wireless data services, a potentially major new area of Internet business for the computer maker.

The new services, planned for early next year, will allow businesses to use Sprint's PCS Wireless Web to send and receive email and access a variety of other corporate applications. Such services will be delivered in "real time" using Sprint PCS Internet-ready Phones, the companies said.

The agreement follows IBM's October announcement that it will team with online pharmacy PlanetRx to enable virtual shopping via Palm handheld devices.

Both partnerships are aimed at advancing Big Blue's vision of proliferating Net devices and services. The strategy of "pervasive computing" is a major theme inside IBM these days as it pushes beyond the personal computer to e-commerce businesses centered on computer systems, software and services that make the Net accessible anywhere, anytime.

For Sprint, keen to stay abreast of the nascent wireless data industry in the United States, the deal provides an important entry point into corporate Intranets, which may drive a lot of wireless phone business down the road.

The agreement addresses the need "for clear, mobile access to any information, on any device, virtually anywhere, anytime," Charles Levine, chief sales and marketing officer for Sprint PCS, said in a prepared statement.

"Wireless technology is an extension of the Internet and the business case for deploying applications to wireless devices is compelling," he added.

If realized, one of the major attractions of wireless Internet services is the freedom from being tethered to a networked desktop or phone line, combined with the ability to send and receive much of the same data one would access with a PC.

Like its deal with PlanetRx, IBM will supply "hosting services," which do a lot of the grunt work in data-flow management. IBM said it will provide "extensions" to its existing corporate enterprise software products, such as database, messaging and device management, enabling wireless networks to accommodate the "delivery of mission-critical data and transactions to and from a variety of devices."

One of the key elements to the service is real-time data delivery, according to the two companies, meaning that data transactions will not suffer the delays which plague some wireless technologies.

But it remains to be seen how all of this works in a data-intensive corporate environment. Today, wireless email services typically are slow and cannot handle large data files easily. Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects, a consultancy, says that many of these services have spotty performance and generate more than their fair share of customer complaints.

IBM is aware of these challenges, citing a Forrester Research study which states that in order to enable mobile data services, carriers need infrastructure upgrades to enhance the capabilities of existing cellular networks.

Despite the challenges, IBM believes these enhancements can be achieved without a major overhaul of existing networks which more advanced technologies such as "3G" require. In short, for the IBM-Sprint service, there is no imperative for 3G-type technologies such as videoconferencing or multimedia services.

The study also predicts that telecommunications carriers will partner with a variety of "mobile data specialists" because carriers don't have the experience or core competency to provide and support mobile Internet services on their own.

New services will also improve the bottom line for carriers, according to the study. "With average revenue per user leveling off, carriers will benefit from bundling new mobile data services with voice services. Mobile data services will allow carriers to differentiate their offerings and increase customer retention rates as customers personalize Internet content and services for their phones," the study says.

IBM's agreement with Sprint is "by no means exclusive," according to the company. "We'll work with other carriers--and have some in the pipeline--and Sprint PCS will work with others as well," an IBM spokesperson said.

Today marks the announcement of the partnership, and beginning early next year IBM will start to announce deals with businesses participating in the IBM-Sprint PCS services, according to the IBM spokesperson. In September, Sprint PCS launched its Wireless Web Connection, which enables business customers to connect to a corporate Intranet using a laptop or handheld computing device.

Internally, Big Blue is already playing with these services by giving employees trial access to a corporate directory called the "blue pages" directly from Sprint PCS phones.