Deskless Workers, Useless Services: Microsoft Online Misses the Mark

Summary:I spend a lot of time tracking the deskless souls who inhabit the workworld, the factory workers, nurses and others who spend more time on their feet and less time on their butts than the rest of us.

I spend a lot of time tracking the deskless souls who inhabit the workworld, the factory workers, nurses and others who spend more time on their feet and less time on their butts than the rest of us. So I was all ears as Stephen Elop, Microsoft's latest Business Division head, announced a new set of online services (Mary-Jo Foley's post on this and other announcements from Microsoft's partner conference can be found here) with the absolutely unpronounceable category name of Deskless Worker Suite: Try saying it 10 times, much less once, without tripping up on the sheer awfulness of the term.

The needs of deskless workers are manifold, and only growing as traditional back-office enterprise software reaches out to the masses of workers traditionally underserved by the ERP and CRM systems of the world. So the concept -- if not the buzz term -- is a good one. But Microsoft's initial concept of what could be useful to these workers in an online fashion -- even at a measly $3 per user per month -- is sadly off target.

Basically, what Elop proposed is a set of online services that provide read-only access to email, calendars and Sharepoint portals -- giving employees "read-only access to important information such as company policies, training, and benefits."

The reality is that this class of information is hardly "important", especially to deskless workers trying to do real work, and constitutes a reality-gap in Microsoft's online strategy that needs a little fixing.

Deskless workers do spend relatively little time interfacing with key enterprise resources, but when they do, the needs are complex, very often mission-critical, and almost always interactive in nature. Nurses need to quickly pop over to a screen in the middle of an examination to read and update medical records, order drugs and supplies, and otherwise interact with the systems that are at the heart and soul of a hospital or medical practice. And factory workers need to be able to pop off the production line, order some new supplies or report a problem, and then get back to the business at hand. There are a million more examples about what deskless workers need, and most of them have nothing to do with terms like "read-only" and access to unimportant policy and training information.

So I have to take issue with Mary-Jo's contention that the new Deskless Online services could be bad for partners. This announcement is mostly a non-starter, and if there is harm it will come from the fact that Microsoft's Online strategy was making a lot of sense, up until this misstep.

Luckily it's just a little blunder, and the fact that the whole thing needs to be renamed anyway will offer Elop's team the opportunity to rethink just what a deskless worker really wants. Hopefully, once that exercise is underway, we'll start to see an offering worthy of the rest of Microsoft's Online strategy, which, though nascent, has been largely on the mark until now.

Topics: Microsoft


Joshua Greenbaum has over 20 years of experience in the industry as a computer programmer, systems analyst, author, and consultant. In addition to his work from various bases in Silicon Valley, he spent three years in Europe tracking the enterprise software market as an analyst and correspondent for leading industry publications. Josh is... Full Bio

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