“The phone has a unique role. While the PC is the most powerful device, the phone is the most popular device… How do we bring all the business experiences and entertainment experiences of the other devices to the phone in an appropriate way? … That's a great opportunity for innovation from Microsoft.”- Steve Ballmer, CTIA Wireless I.T. & Entertainment conference, October 2007
Optimising online services for thousands of different types of mobile phones
In a typical month, nearly 20 million people worldwide use the mobile versions of Microsoft's MSN and Windows Live services like Hotmail. Yet the challenges involved in providing these services for mobile phone users are very different from those for their PC-based counterparts – there are more than 1,100 different mobile phones and devices, each with its own form factor and individual capabilities. High-end models sport large screens and features such as satellite navigation, and hundreds of other devices provide their own set of specific capabilities, such as video playback.
A one-size-fits-all approach will fail to meet customers' needs, given the sheer diversity in mobile phone capabilities. Yet customising each of Microsoft's services for hundreds of different phones and browsers is a near-impossible task.
Enter Microsoft's Global Product Development-Europe (GPD-E) team, a ”core tech” development group based in Dublin, Ireland, and staffed primarily by European software engineers. For the past two years, the team has been building a new mobile device management platform that allows Microsoft's online services to automatically and dynamically optimise their offerings for each user's phone and browser, without writing additional software.
The platform was formally released in the summer of 2008 and is now used by more than a dozen of Microsoft's online services. The team is now working on a version of the platform that is expected to be made available to .NET software developers worldwide, allowing them to use the same rich database of device capabilities to adapt their own services for mobile users.
The Dublin-based team also helped meet a key business intelligence opportunity by developing a system for tracking which types of devices were accessing Microsoft services. “This system formed the basis of a reporting initiative that two years later is avidly used by product planners across the company to stay abreast of trends in the mobile marketplace,” says Ben Childers, Senior Program Manager at Microsoft and one of the founding members of the team.
A strategic approach
The GPD-E team's primary goals are to staff up phenomenal engineering talent in Europe and deliver high-quality core engineering work to meet Microsoft's key business needs. In addition to the mobile device platform, developers also work on data centre management tools and services, two other projects for Microsoft's mobile phone business, and advanced data visualisation and analytics tools.
“From the outset, the team's success has been predicated upon our ability to function as a true R&D organisation performing original development work, rather than an outsourcing agency,” says Dan Stevenson, Principal Group Program Manager in GPD-E.
The extensive automation and scalability investment in the mobile device platform allowed the team to quickly support new markets and devices. For example, it only took a few days to incorporate more than 500 new devices for the Japanese market, instantly giving those customers much better experiences on Microsoft's mobile services.
The team in Dublin worked not only with US-based engineering and business teams, and with other global development centres, such as a mobile software development team in Shanghai, China.
Developers, developers, developers!
“The mobile browse file makes it easier for us to build sites targeting a larger variety of current mobile devices,” said John Stockton, RIA Developer at Ascentium. “It allows us to build effective mobile experiences for our clients while taking advantage of the unique capabilities of each device.” A key part of Microsoft's mission is to help software developers worldwide be more productive and create powerful solutions for their users. To that end, the GPDE team realised that the new device data platform could be very helpful to third-party software developers building mobile Web services using Microsoft's platform. The team is currently preparing a possible public release of the device platform. This software will allow third-party developers using .NET to dynamically adapt their web sites to support thousands of different mobile phones and browsers, similar to how the internal platform is used by Microsoft services like Hotmail.
As part of the final work on the device platform, the GPD-E team designed a new reporting portal for Microsoft's business and technical staff to better understand the mobile device marketplace and technology. Using the portal, Microsoft's business analysts and software developers can explore all of the rich mobile device data in the platform, including advanced reports on which devices are utilising Microsoft's online services, and which capabilities of those devices are being exercised.
“Now that most of the platform work is complete, our team is working on several new projects in the mobile space which will support Microsoft's online services and Windows Mobile operating system,” said Stevenson.