Microsoft Windows Phone 7 should rule business smartphones

Microsoft's dominant role in business computing should make it the natural leader for business mobility.

Microsoft shook things up this week with some high-profile departures, and a reorganization of the Entertainment and Devices division that has CEO Steve Ballmer directly controlling the future of Microsoft's consumer technologies. When it comes to smartphones, Windows Phone 7 should arguably be the de facto platform for business professionals, but Microsoft may be delivering too little, too late.

Microsoft is ubiquitous with business computing. The vast majority of organizations rely on Windows as a server operating system, and Active Directory as a directory framework. Many businesses use Microsoft Exchange as their messaging platform, Windows as the desktop operating system, and Microsoft Office for office productivity applications.

Microsoft isn't just involved in these areas--for most of these technologies Microsoft virtually owns the market. It holds a preeminent role in all areas of business technology...except smartphones. Somehow, Microsoft conceded the business smartphone market to RIM, and the BlackBerry OS.

The problem with Microsoft's attempts at a mobile platform for smartphones is that Microsoft sees the world through the eyes of a desktop. Windows Mobile treats smartphones as if they are just much smaller notebook computers and tries to apply the same principles and technologies as it does for Windows desktops.

What Microsoft learned the hard way, and even RIM is now realizing, is that mobility requires a different vision. Smartphones, and now the emerging tablet market led by the Apple iPad, are peripherally related to traditional computing, but require more innovative thinking about what "mobility" is.

The primary role of the smartphone is to enable the business professional to stay connected from anywhere, and at any time. Business professionals want access to e-mail, and instant messaging, and the Web in the palm of their hand. Business professionals want to be able to view and edit documents and conduct business from the smartphone when necessary, but that doesn't mean that the smartphone should try to be a Windows desktop in your pocket.

From an IT administrator perspective, though, Microsoft should be a natural choice for smartphone platform. IT administrators want to be able to provision, manage, monitor, and protect smartphones and other mobile devices centrally and remotely. Active Directory provides a powerful framework capable of meeting that objective, but Microsoft let RIM take the lead with the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) mobile platform.

Apple revolutionized the smartphone with the iPhone. The Android OS from Google offers a compelling alternative to the iPhone for business professionals that want more control over the smartphone experience, or don't want to rely on AT&T as a wireless carrier. Apple and Google are aggressively competing with each other to define the mobility experience, while RIM and Microsoft are playing catch up.

Windows Phone 7 looks impressive from what has been revealed thus far. If this were two years ago, Windows Phone 7 might even be a cutting edge innovation that could set the smartphone world on fire. When it's finally launched, though, Windows Phone 7 will face a formidable challenge just to establish relevance and slow Microsoft's slide into smartphone oblivion.

Once upon a time, Microsoft was in a position to define smartphones, and its dominant stake in desktop operating systems, messaging servers, and office productivity software established it as the natural leader for the business smartphone platform.

Microsoft should be the de facto ruler of business smartphones. That was then, this is now, though, and that ship may have sailed no matter how phenomenal Windows Phone 7 might be when it finally arrives.

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Tony Bradley

PC World (US online)

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