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Stinger: The Sneak Preview

MS reference device falls into journo's lap

Microsoft has a reputation of crushing all the companies who stand in its way - it's often seen as the Seattle giant that uses its software might to take on plucky start-ups and win. The company which crushed Netscape. The problem with being big and successful is what to do next.

Microsoft has expanded into two directions. X-box is the new games machine designed to take on the Playstation and Game Cube, while Stinger is the new software for mobile phones. There is a big difference between Stinger and X-box though. While Microsoft will be making the X-box hardware, much as it makes Microsoft Joysticks, keyboards and mice, Microsoft will not be making Stinger phones. That will be left to dedicated manufacturers which will buy the Stinger software from Microsoft.

Originally Microsoft quoted a price of $5 a time, but the price is now secret after the market has gone red-hot. It would be like Microsoft to prioritise propagation of its own software over cost issues.

During a meeting with Microsoft in June, the marketing minder was conveniently distracted for half an hour, giving me the chance to explore a Stinger phone far more fully than any specialist journalist has done to date. I was looking at a reference device, that is, a product which is not intended to ship but to give third party developers an idea what the phones from Samsung, HTC and Sendo will look and feel like when they appear.

More a smarter phone than a cut-down PDA, it looks like a mobile with a big screen and a real keypad. The first impressions are good. It's a device you really can use one-handed. The 176 x 220 pixel monochrome screen was good and clear. It's also an indication of Microsoft coming to terms with the phone world.

That resolution isn't a sensible factor of the VGA proportions, but it is a standard in the Japanese phones used by DoCoMo for i-mode and as a result is a size hardware manufacturers will find easy to buy. Not that Stinger is tied to any screen size. One of the reasons it's easy to read is that the Stinger people spent a lot of time working with the Microsoft Truetype people to design a font that was especially easy to read on a small screen. You will be able to add different fonts, but Microsoft rather hopes you won't want to.

The main control is a four-way joypad which also presses in to provide a 'select' option. There is a 'home' and a 'backspace' key but no 'cancel', the cancel function being tackled by the backspace key when appropriate. Two soft keys have prompts at the bottom of the screen. The right one often reads 'menu', and 'cancel' is often an option within this. As with Pocket PC there is no 'close program' option.

It's a very American device, more Motorola than Nokia in mindset. In the original build of the software I saw in December, there was no option to set background graphics, but this is incorporated into later builds, giving either the handset manufacturer, the mobile phone network or the end user the option to change the screen. It will be the network which acts as gatekeeper for this. The network might decide that it is more important for the screen to show their logo than a picture of your children.

It is envisaged that rather than leaving the phone with the program you want running - say a WAP browser - you will run plug-ins to show crucial information such as share prices, cricket scores, or whatever pushed your button, on the welcome screen. Microsoft recognises that the standards in the mobile phone world are Nokia and, like Alcatel, Sagem and Mitsubishi, it uses Nokia-standard downloadable ring tones. Again, this wasn't in the December build I looked at, but is now part of the OS.

While the prototype had a vibrate function it didn't have a ring tone composer. Microsoft expects that this will be added by third party developers as a point of differentiation. Expect lots of ring-orientated features. Most upmarket phones offer downloadable ring tones, a composer and some the ability to play a .wav file - all of which can be allocated to individual people in the phonebook.

Costs a packet

Microsoft seems to be getting its corporate head around the differences between a pocket device and a connected pocket device. One important aspect of this is the ability to count GPRS packets. When you buy a GPRS phone you are billed by the kilobyte or megabyte.

Currently the only GPRS phone which is shipping is the Motorola T260, and for anything other than a handful of corporate customers the service is WAP only. This means one megabyte of data is more than you are likely to use.

This will change, however, particularly if you start downloading pictures, email and games. As the price per megabyte becomes significant you will want to know how much you've spent. BT Cellnet's view is 'you know because we'll send you a bill'. Otherwise known as 'trust us'. Billing software is not simple and any heavy user is going to want a means to know if the network has got its sums right. While the prototype Stinger I saw didn't count GPRS packets, this feature is promised. You should be able to see what your bill is on the screen of the phone, all the time.

Another phone rather than PDA thing is obeying the standards. CHPS is an addition to the standard phone standards which allows for things like Line 2 on Orange and holding down the 1 key to get voicemail. Some networks insist on CHPS (Orange is one), and again this is supported by Stinger.

Dates are expressed in American mm/dd/yy format but that might just be a national setting, the prototype not yet having the code to spot the nationality from the SIM - but this will come. The forthcoming Trium Eclipse and the new Vtech A600 both go one better and have the operator logos in ROM so that they can display the logo of the network you are on. In theory the network can send its logo over the air - as with a Nokia phone - in practice they won't.

Microsoft has been through something of a learning curve with CLI, and while the prototype couldn't cope with the way different network infrastructures presented numbers differently, this has now been debugged. One of the things I found most disturbing is the contents of the 'about' box. The credit said 'Windows CE 3.0 (build 1039)'. Windows is not an operating system for a mobile phone. Mobile phone users don't expect their devices to need to be re-booted. Third party apps shouldn't need libraries. The development environment for Stinger is Visual C++ or assembler.

The prototype had 8Mb RAM, with 2.96Mb free. This is with debug software but before any data or third party software had been loaded. In practice it means there will only be room for one third party application. There was no removable storage, but again this is a reference platform and shipping phones are expected to use the same MMC multi media cards as the Siemens SL45 uses for storing MP3 files. There was nothing on the prototype to tax the device speedwise but with an envisaged clockspeed of 80MHz to 140MHz there should be plenty of performance out of an ARM processor.

Clock speed and screen technology have a huge impact on battery life. Microsoft is hoping the devices will have a 100 to 120 hours standby time. To do this they will need screens which don't need power to stay on and central processors which sleep. This is well understood technology. What is still a bit of an unknown is how GPRS will affect battery life. There might be good mathematical ways of working out power consumption but nothing beats real life. How well the predictions stand up remains to be seen. Yet another factor is how well third party applications manage power and tax the processor.

Programmers for this kind of device should be thinking 'Sinclair Spectrum or BBC Micro', thinking about code sizes and optimization. There is even the prospect of attribute clash returning. The new Organic Electro Luminescent technology which will provide low power colour suffers from problems with adjacent colours. Games programmers from the 1980s are the people to cope with this technology.

The whole user interface works very well one-handed, but the best example is the games. There is a version of solitaire and blackjack. The number keys are used to denote where cards should be moved to. The blackjack gives hints on playing the game (stick on 14 if the dealer has a 3 showing), and even includes an option to card count. Microsoft has its priorities right. If there is an incoming call while you are playing, the game is suspended and then as soon as the call ends you are straight back into the game. Games which are technically more taxing for the programmers will exploit standard graphics libraries. There is a Win32 driver and for action games a direct to screen driver.

Stinger uses Tegic T9, the excellent predictive text system now owned by AOL. A few quick messages revealed that the dictionary didn't know the word 'Stinger'. I suspect that it does however know the word 'Nokia' as the Ericsson R520 Bluetooth phone knows Nokia but not 'Bluetooth'. Fair enough, Stinger is only a code name, and once again you can expect the dictionary to be refined. While they are at it they will probably add the word 'Sendo'.

Microsoft claims good adherence to SMS standards with some of the less mainstream features catered for, like a setting which allows an incoming SMS to delete and replace one already in your inbox. The feature is particularly good for information such as weather reports where you only want the latest status. Americans spend a lot of time on aircraft, so the ability to switch the phone off while using the PDA is essential and Stinger complies.

Microsoft vs. Symbian

There is a lot of politics behind Stinger. Microsoft wants to be big and important in the mobile world. Unfortunately for them, the big important incumbents - Nokia, Sony-Ericsson, Motorola and Siemens - use the rival Symbian operating system. Those four top dogs account for 80 per cent of the phones sold. The major Microsoft licensee is Sendo, which aspires to 0.5 per cent of the mobile phone market. Microsoft's solution to this is to put emphasis on the software where it is already dominant - within businesses.

Outlook is one of the most-used programs in the world. Millions of people organise their lives using Outlook and Outlook Express. Microsoft has a system called MMIS (Microsoft Mobile Information System) which lets you view your email in a corporate network using a mobile phone. MMIS uses Web and WAP viewers. Microsoft hopes that people who use this service will find it so great they will want something better than WAP, therefore Stinger provides good links with MMIS (called under its codename Airsync on the prototype).

The long term plan is to sell corporates on MMIS and then use this as a way to sell them phones.

Microsoft claims that Stinger will be in the shops by Christmas. This seems very optimistic. Sendo isn't giving dates but my contention that March 2002 seemed sensible was met with an approving nod.

In general Americans are isolated from GSM. Microsoft has done a fairly good job of overcoming this, partly by buying the Scandinavian company Send-IT and partly by poaching lots of good Symbian people. Symbian is still ahead - with the mindset of the developers, the tightness of the code and, perhaps most significantly, with a system that has been shipping for years and has a track record against Microsoft's system. The gap, however, is smaller than ever.

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