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Microsoft maps out wireless offering

The software giant partners with Sprint and Bell Mobility to sell services, mainly to businesses, that exploit a mobile phone's ability to broadcast its exact location.

ATLANTA--Microsoft is hot on the trail of location-based services for cell phones.

On Monday at the CTIA Wireless 2004 show here, the software giant announced partnerships with U.S. cell phone service provider Sprint and with Bell Mobility in Canada to sell services, mainly to businesses, that exploit a mobile phone's ability to broadcast its exact location.

The Canadian carrier is already selling new services based on Microsoft server software, also introduced here Monday, that lets developers plug directly into the "geotracking" databases of cell phone service providers. Sprint, meanwhile, is set to unveil location-based services based on the Microsoft initiative by midyear, according to Steve Lombardi, technical evangelist and product manager for Microsoft's MapPoint Web Service.

Cell phone geotracking stems from a Federal Communications Commission mandate that wireless providers enable emergency workers to know the exact location of a cell phone dialing 911, a capability they've long had whenever someone calls on a traditional landline phone. After years of delays, the nation?s top five providers of cell phone service are now offering what are called enhanced 911 services to a growing number of their subscribers.

The inevitable commercial exploitation of the mandate has already begun, but just barely. AT&T Wireless has an opt-in Friend Finder service that lets AT&T Wireless subscribers locate other subscribers, while Nextel Communications has been supplying delivery services with services to track packages and employees.

Some carriers use global-positioning satellite systems, while others determine a phone's location by the closest base station in a nearby cell phone network.

Microsoft's push into location-based services is aimed at businesses, which have been shown to be a bigger market for such services than consumers. Lombardi said the new server software will be a cheaper alternative for businesses looking to launch such services, and for software developers aiming to create them.

"Businesses have wanted to tap into real-time business location, but haven't been able to because, so far, it's been too expensive," he said.

Microsoft's new server software takes care of the problem that application makers have of not being to write a program once and then run it anywhere, Lombardi said. Carriers have deployed different methods of finding their subscribers? phones, a major reason why developers are having trouble coming up with commercially viable location-based services, Lombardi said.

"It takes six months for developers to make applications that work on one carrier," Lombardi said. "But then they have to rewrite the same application for another carrier. When you fan that out to four or five other carriers a business might use, then you have lots of problems."

Sun Microsystems, meanwhile, has been developing a standardized Java program intended to run on most Internet-enabled handsets.