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Not a lot is said these days about Microsoft when talking about smartphones and tablets. Sure, people know their new products are coming but most people don’t believe they’ll be all that relevant once they arrive (“it’s still not an iPhone” the Apple fanboys will say, as they always do).

I think very differently – I’m extremely bullish on Microsoft smartphones and tablets. The reason? Enterprise.

The consumer market has largely driven smartphone sales in the last couple of years, but people forget the fact that it all began years before with RIM in the enterprise. iPhones and Android smartphones and tablets have started creating all kinds of disruption – so much that an entire trend has been named and fully accepted by industry pundits; the so-called “consumerization of IT”.

While I don’t think this trend is even partially B.S. I do believe it’s overstated. A much more long-winded way to describe what’s been going on is “consumer-focused smartphones and tablets with very useful innovations have been adopted by geeks, receptionists, sales guys, executives – everyone! – and because there aren’t any enterprise-friendly viable alternatives, IT organizations have had to figure out a way to allow the use of them within their so-called secure environments”.

Basically it hasn’t, and still doesn’t seem to be, in either Google’s or Apple’s interests to inject enterprise control-ablity (that’s a word because I just added it to my dictionary!) into their respective mobile platforms. They focus on the consumer market and apparently don’t care to at this point.

From the other side, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that RIM has largely failed the enterprise market with its sub-par responses to the iPhone/Andoid and the iPad (I don’t think android tablets are worth talking about in the same light as the iPad just yet, though the latest Samsung tablet looks pretty sweet!), which has left a gaping hole for IT departments in terms of offering some of the same value with enterprise-friendly devices.

Enter Microsoft.

After being late to the party and suffering a few false starts (Windows Mobile), their new generation of smartphones and the certainty of subsequent tablets are looking very promising, and they are in a great position to fill the enterprise niche that’s starving to be served.

Everything I’ve heard so far about the Microsoft phones is good – the screens are great, the O/S is responsive, the phones do what they should (handle phone calls), their app store is already respectable, secure, and most importantly growing with a developer ecosystem that’s well supported.

Combine that with their secret sauce – cloud-based Office apps that you can properly edit with your smartphone/tablet and the ability to provide a premium experience around Exchange and AD (which absolutely owns the enterprise email/calendaring space), and it’s starting to look pretty compelling to IT departments to make Microsoft their preferred vendor for smartphones and tablets…assuming one thing…

Their challenge is going to be opening up (just enough without degrading some of the valuable security principles coming from the iOS/Android models) the underlying O/S to IT admins and security vendors (like Sophos!), enabling IT departments to enforce policies and secure their data more effectively. [DISCLAIMER: I honestly don’t know enough about the platform/APIs to say whether they’ve succeeded or failed at this or whether it’s a work in progress, so unfortunately I’m just speculating on what they should do, not what they are doing or have done.]

Currently iOS and Android suck at this, and it’s causing all sorts of headaches for security vendors (this i can say with certainty!) who can’t give IT admins the control they need, and IT administrators who can’t enforce the policies that the organization wants to enforce, and thus can’t satisfactorily secure their data, which prevents them from more quickly leveraging new technologies that could give them a competitive advance.

So a Microsoft as a compelling alternative makes a ton of sense to me. A couple of more reasons why I think this is inevitable:

  • See my previous post on cloud-based apps and how all the good ones are (or should be) aiming to be platform agnostic, meaning Apple’s advantage here will be degraded over time.
  • People don’t want to buy their own phone, pay their own data bills, and deal with the headache of not aligning with their organization’s IT policies. If a Microsoft phone can give me all of my favourite apps AND my company pays for and supports it because they can control and secure it, that’s a no-brainer to 90% of workers out there./li>
  • In the enterprise most people still live and die in Outlook, Word, and Excel (and OneNote if Microsoft got their sh!t together on that…sorry – tangent). A premium experience delivered on tablets and mobile phones would be much more valued than having an iPhone because it’s an iPhone. Right now the email/calendaring experience on every phone and tablet just sucks compared to sitting in front of Outlook on a PC (ok, fine, or a Mac).

So I suppose this is both a predictive AND hopeful post, because Microsoft can definitely still screw this up.

They need to build up an app store with all of the same relevant apps, and make it easy and profitable for developers to build on their platform.

They need the platform and overall experience to be fast, responsive, and beautiful…and ideally different in a few ways that are meaningful to buyers (ability to upload files from SkyDrive in a mobile browser? Flash? Etc.?).

They need to quickly build up market share by enabling their hardware/provider partners to go after IT departments and sell hundreds or thousands of phones in a single deal to entire organizations who want out of their Blackberry prisons.

But most of all, they need to enable some level of policy enforcement for IT departments.

They could still screw it up. But my hope is that they don’t. If they can manage to execute with even a few stumbles, they could greatly improve their position in the new tech landscape in a variety of ways and give their faithful enterprise customers a whole lot of value.

…and I could get rid of my crappy Torch and have a cool phone and tablet that my company can control…

Hmmm. Ok, so one solution creates a whole different set of challanges. Maybe now’s the time for me to shamelessly plug Sophos Web Protection, which allows organizations to secure their data and protect their users with the flexibility to allow said users to continue to enjoy their favourite websites and services – the best of both worlds!