Windows Mobile still faces issues: Microsoft

Windows-powered smart phones may be making the transition from executive toy to business workforce tool, but issues remain.

Windows-powered smart phones may be making the transition from executive toy to business workforce tool, but a dearth of management tools, limited upgradeability and inadequate marketing efforts mean Microsoft and its partners still have their work cut out for them, company executives have conceded.

-We've realised that people are aware of the Windows Mobile platform, but they don't have a deep enough understanding of what exactly we have to offer," Grace Ho, Asia Pacific and Greater China Region director for the enterprise segment within Microsoft's Mobile and Embedded Devices (MED) Division, said recently following the company's first Australian enterprise mobility seminar in Melbourne.

Positioning the recently released Windows Mobile 5 (WM5) operating system -- and the PDAs and smart phones that run it -- has been a full-time effort for Ho and her peers within MED, who are piloting the fast-growing division that is spearheading Microsoft's challenge against Research In Motion's successful Blackberry e-mail device.

Mobile e-mail remains the main driver for companies taking up smart phones: by the end of 2008, Gartner advises, wireless e-mail will be built into all smart phones -- and IT departments should be restructuring their information frameworks in anticipation.

One key focus for potential customers, according to Ho, is to ensure that gadget appeal doesn't win out over well-thought enterprise credentials. -We've learned that if we guide the customer through what is needed to implement and address [mobile] solutions, it works better," she explained. -We often work with selected device partners that have devices which we feel are not necessarily the sexiest, but perhaps are well poised for enterprise usability and extensibility."

By positioning WM5 as a complete enterprise platform -- complete with accoutrements like user authentication, data encryption, remote management and other capabilities that businesses expect -- Microsoft hopes to strengthen its position in this market, where WM5's support for 'push' content has made it a head-to-head challenger against Blackberry.

Although the devices are becoming popular in logistics, sales and other equally mobile areas for providing mobile access to enterprise applications, customers still have questions about the potential return on investment they can expect.

-Given the rapid evolution of technology and wireless networks, I'm wondering what's the real working life of that initial investment?" one seminar attendee grilled the gathered executives. -You build your ROI on the expectation of two to three years' working life, but you sit down 12 months later and have to upgrade it. I'm taking about having to justify to my board that this is going to benefit users in the long term."

Such customer comments reflect significant concern about investing too heavily in emerging smart phone devices -- particularly with niggling issues forcing device makers to repeatedly patch their devices. O2, for example, has released several ROM upgrades for its popular Atom in the past six months and only this month offered a stable, smooth operating system image.

Customers had similar concerns years ago as notebook PCs, and the rapid innovation curve that market has seen, challenged enterprise managers to think about new ways of securing and upgrading devices that were rarely even located in the office.

However, Windows has been designed to be patched in situ while upgrading WM5 smart phones requires that the device's operating system be completely overwritten and all data erased -- presenting potential data concurrency issues for companies wanting to optimise their devices with the latest patches.

Also different to notebook PCs, Windows Mobile 2003-powered devices already running in a company simply cannot be upgraded to run WM5 or forthcoming new versions of the operating system.

-We did look at it, because we presumed that would be the #1 question when WM5 came out," says Allison Caruk, brand manager Carrier Devices, the local distributor of i-Mate WM5-powered smart phones. -However, there were a number of technical issues that we hit and we couldn't guarantee the performance of that device after we took it through the migration path. As far as we can see, technically it is not possible."

Eric Aarrestad, group manager for enterprise marketing within Microsoft's MED, admits the company has had to work to get its devices onto a lifecycle that will be familiar and acceptable to corporate users, yet -- even while noting that WM5 is itself due for an upgrade within six months -- argues that the situation is getting better.

-Within our own 22,000 device internal rollout at Microsoft, we are essentially adopting the same two to two-and-a-half year lifecycle as we are for laptops," says Aarrestad. -It's fair to say that a few years ago you were seeing devices quickly get outdated and hardware going to newer cycles, but I think you're starting to see that level out. [That means companies can] start treating their mobile assets similar to how they would treat their other assets."

Just how they are meant to do that, however, remains unclear as Microsoft lacks a viable data backup tool of its own. For now, Aarrestad directs enterprise customers to solutions such as the recently released i-Mate Suite, which provides features such as mobile device backup and remote data wiping.

Such tools may work for individual users, but larger-scale adoption requires a more comprehensive framework that, Ho concedes, is still far from maturity. -We plan to come up with a device management strategy," she says, -and we are working on that. But in the interim, we are working with partners like i-Mate ... and there are other opportunities where partners are working to opportunistically capture demand. It is definitely in our roadmap to make sure that we eventually have a longer-term device management strategy."

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