Microsoft needs Windows Phone 8 to be a success in order to restore its standing in the smartphone world. In particular, the new mobile operating system contains a number of business-focused features that Microsoft hopes will help it make up the ground it's lost to iOS and Android devices.
Office and Windows 8
Perhaps one of the Microsoft platform's biggest strengths is its ability to work with its touch-friendly desktop OS and its legacy enterprise apps, such as Office - and Windows Phone 8 is no different.
All Windows Phone 8 handsets come with a non-ad supported version of Office that includes Word, Excel, OneNote and PowerPoint - but leaves out things like Access. Think of it as like the free 'Student' version of Office that comes pre-installed on new devices, except without the ads.
Microsoft's Office suite has undergone a significant overhaul in the last few months, and the introduction of Office 365 brought Office mobile's cloud-sync capabilities, meaning that any changes made to documents or last-minute additions to that crucial PowerPoint presentation are automatically synced with versions on other devices.
"It's about you and your data rather than what device you happen to be working on," Richard Warren, technical services professional lead for Windows Phone 8 in the UK, told ZDNet at the Windows Phone launch. "Because it uses the same binaries, the same code, as on a PC there's no messing around with formatting, so the PowerPoint presentation we can see here is exactly the same as you'd see on the screen. If we're cloud connected we can sync all this content together."
In addition to offering a two-way content sync, it also supports bookmarking, so, if you're part way through editing a document and need to leave the house or office, you can pick up exactly where you left off on your phone.
Naturally, Windows Phone 8 also provides extensive email support (including web-based services and Exchange) via Outlook Mobile and offers the option of receiving them all in one inbox, which can be filtered by account.
"You get the standard Outlook mailboxes, nice threaded conversations and full access to your outlook," Warren said. "If you're running an Exchange 2010 server on the back-end you get virtually all the services: 256 SSL, Information Rights Management – all of that."
Behind the scenes of the syncing is Microsoft's (also revamped) SkyDrive service which automatically backs up documents, pictures and other files from a Windows Phone 8 handset.
Warren also told ZDNet that corporate data on the device should stay protected thanks to full internal storage encryption. However, in the interests of balancing consumer and BYOD demands for the devices, Microsoft has taken the decision not to encrypt microSD storage, in order to allow the removable storage (and anything saved on it) to work on other devices too.
"The SD card is Windows-readable, so I can pop it out, put it into a PC and it will just read it. What we decided was that we would not encrypt the SD card. That was a tough decision but there are two reasons why," Warren said.
"The first is that, we wanted it to be Windows-readable. The encryption we use is hardware-based], so there’s a TPM chip inside the phone that maintains the keys, so if I take the card out it now has no access to its keys, so it becomes a non-readable piece of media," he added.
While this obviously raises questions about the security of any data saved on external storage, Warren added that only music, videos, photos and e-books can be stored on the card for that reason. If you try to save any other kind of file or, say, sensitive business document to the expandable storage, it simply won't let you.
"We limit the type of data that can be stored on the SD card, and it does it through header, not file extensions so you can't fool it. The idea is that firstly, it makes it readable and secondly means I can segregate personal content away from business content, so when that devices is being managed through a mobile device management system it wipes the internal storage, but doesn't touch your personal content," Warren said.
Mobile device management
Microsoft wants to woo businesses by allowing Windows Phone 8 to be managed by a number of different tools, ranging from using Exchange Active Sync (EAS) to perform things like a device wipe, right through to tools like MobileIron or InTune found in larger enterprises.
Similarly to the device management aspects of the platform, Microsoft has also considered the app needs of business users, in particular the potential security risk presented by giving all employees unfettered access to the full Windows Phone 8 app store.
Business app stores
The company's solution is to allow business to host their own on-premise version with its own curated app content.
"It's not an easy process, we don't just give the certificates away, you have to go through a fairly rigid process to get permission to do this. We get Verisign in to assess the situation, once we're happy with that we will give that organisation a sub-ordinate code-signing certificate," Warren said. "With that they can basically build their own internal app store; that allows them to deploy line-of-business applications automatically to the devices, but it's role-based. So as you add the app store to the phone, it [realises who you are] and knows that you require these apps, these news feeds – and it delivers them automatically to a branded hub on the home screen."
However, company users are not necessarily cut off completely from the public app store as on-premise app store administrators can choose to essentially re-publish public apps on their own branded internal store.
There are other features too, like Lync feature integration into the OS, which means that when you need to join a conference call, you simply need to pull up the details of the call (pictured above), press 'join online meeting' and enter the PIN code.
Whether or not this raft of business-friendly features can stop the impending march of Apple's iOS platform into enterprises remains to be seen, but it must surely appeal to IT administrators more than alternatives such as Android.