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IBM cozies up to wireless providers

Big Blue's new software provides a platform for wireless phone companies to help launch new data services.

IBM is unveiling a new family of software products on Tuesday that are expected to make it easier for mobile phone operators to offer new services to customers.

Sprint, which announced a with IBM in February, will be the first carrier to use the new software suite. The latest announcement is one piece of the $100 million investment that Sprint has pledged to the partnership, which includes fees for consulting and outsourcing, as well as the purchase of certain products, such as software.

"There are several ways we could have gone about developing new services for customers," said Rob Kermode, marketing manager for Sprint. "But we went with IBM because their middleware makes it easier for application developers to integrate with our existing applications."

Using IBM's WebSphere Everyplace Service Delivery (WESD) software, Sprint expects application developers to create new services for its mobile customers. IBM's software essentially provides the glue that links new applications with old ones, like billing applications. Microsoft, which also has a partnership with Sprint, is among the first developers to work with the IBM software to deliver applications for Sprint customers.

IBM's software is important for telephone carriers, such as Sprint, that are struggling to make money from their existing services. Basic connectivity has become a commodity. As a result, carriers are trying to launch new Web-based services that will bring in more cash.

"In order for service providers to make money, they need to offer more than commodity transport services," said Jerold Murphy, senior vice president of the Meta Group. "And in order for them to develop these services, they need a platform to quickly and easily integrate new applications."

The new IBM software provides that platform. Specifically, the first piece of the software incorporates location, presence and messaging. Tying these three elements together is important, Kermode said. Locating an individual is just one piece, but an application is much more powerful if it can incorporate presence technology, which indicates whether that person is available, and messaging, which then sends an automatic message to that person.

For example, insurance companies are interested in buying a service that could quickly and easily locate agents in the field responding to a disaster, Kermode said. Presence could be used to determine if an agent is available. If the agent is available, text or voice messages could be sent to dispatch agents to particular locations.

Application developers are already working with Sprint on developing new services. Sprint said its first service offering will be commercially available by the end of July. Sprint will make the new features available under current corporate service plans. Exact rates for the new services haven't been determined, but Kermode estimated it would be a flat rate of $10 per month per user.