Can Microsoft crack the mobile OS market with Windows Phone 7?

With the highly anticipated launch of Windows Phone 7 (WP7) later today, Jenny Williams investigates whether Microsoft's latest offering is fit for business.

With the highly anticipated launch of Windows Phone 7 (WP7) later today, Jenny Williams investigates whether Microsoft's latest offering is fit for business.

Microsoft is facing tough competition in the enterprise space. Karl Havers, Ernst & Young head of technology for the EMEA regions, says Microsoft's new OS will offer familiarity for users.

"With all devices, its popularity is driven by how easy and intuitive it is to use. This is a positive for Microsoft as its mobile systems looks and feels familiar [due to its Office suite]," he says.

Havers also believes that the pricing of WP7 handsets will be key contributor to its success.

"If Microsoft tries to take Apple on, head on, it'll more difficult to compete if it's not slightly cheaper," he says, adding, "The ease of access for developers is really important."

Developer popularity

Windows Phone 7 has already proved popular with software developers.

According to Matthew Scherba, developer for software firm, Tx3 Solutions, there is a natural skills transfer between Microsoft's desktop and mobile platforms, making it easier to develop and extend business applications on to a new generation mobile device.

"The WP7 platform and software development kit (SDK) are familiar, the code is reusable, it's free and it's just like developing on the desktop," says Scherba.

However, developers are making further demands for Windows Phone 7.

"For early development, it would be useful to have a broader range of controls in the SDK," Scherba adds. Windows Phone User Group organiser Matt Lacey says, "The most popular requests at the moment are for an increased number of controls and an addition to the API to allow greater interaction with the OS and user data." Microsoft has said that both of these will come in the future.

But other developers are sceptical.

Terence Eden, mobile development specialist, says, "This really is Microsoft's last chance to grasp the mobile ecosystem.

"They realise that mobile is even bigger than PC. Consequently, they're throwing everything they have into WP7. I anticipate a marketing blitz not seen since the days when Microsoft bought their way into the gaming space with the Xbox," he says.

Consumer focus

WP7 is unlikely to appeal to the traditional enterprise market because it is so consumer focused, but in light of the continuing consumerisation of IT, the enterprise may find staff trying to connect WP7 devices to corporate networks.

"The very heavy emphasis on games and the strong integration into the Zune music store are great for consumers.

"But that 'play' focus may draw the ire of CEOs and IT admins, who resent spending money on 'leisure' devices," says Eden.

"I truly think that Microsoft has a great product on its hands. A breath of fresh air compared to the moribund Windows Mobile 6. The user interface is beautiful and it has something to tempt every phone buyer."

However Eden does not expect businesses will be at all pleased with Microsoft's decision to limit app distribution to its Marketplace.

"Because applications have to go through the Microsoft Marketplace, businesses will not be able to deploy in-house applications to their employees. This could cause some resistance to the platform," says Eden.

Security

Security issues also remain. Stuart Gordon, IT business consultant specialising in mobile technologies for Capgemini, said the security measures offered by other mobile operating systems means Microsoft will have to compete even in the business market.

"In recent releases of Apple's iOS 4.1, the security has got so much better that even incredibly security-conscious companies are now allowing iOS to run in the corporate environment along with Microsoft," he says.

IT departments may also find that since it does not have the tight integration into Microsoft Exchange businesses that want to offer mobile e-mail, they will want to continue to deploy Blackberry devices.

Control of OEMs

However, Gordon says Microsoft's dictation of mobile operators and manufacturers will be to its advantage, enabling control of bug fixes and updates where Android users have experienced delays.

"The fact that they're dictating to manufacturers means the baseline is much higher so they won't have dodgy handsets that aren't powerful enough to support [the OS].

"More control will mean the user interface will look better and the handset will run it well," he says.

However, reservations remain. "They've only just got to the table and I'm not sure how strong its hand is going to be against Apple and Android," adds Gordon.

Windows Phone 7 has proved popular with developers, consultants are pleasantly surprised and, despite analyst scepticism, Microsoft is serious about becoming a top contender in the mobile OS market.

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