Windows Mobile still faces issues: Microsoft

Windows Mobile still faces issues: Microsoft

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

TOPICS: Smartphones

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."

Topic: Smartphones


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • Upgradability the key weakness

    I've owned three Windows Mobile devices: A Dell Axim X5, a Fujitsu Siemens Pocket Loox 720 and an iMate SP3i cellphone. They're all excellent devices - and they all have the same flaw: when new versions of Windows Mobile come out, I can't upgrade them unless the manufacturer chooses to create an upgrade.

    This is like buying a desktop or laptop PC and not being able to upgrade to WinXP or Vista unless Dell or HP or whomever decided to release a version of the OS with their drivers built in... now imagine some whitebox maker doing this?

    Case in point: my Loox 720 is one of the most advanced Windows Mobile PDAs out there - but it's stuck at WM2003SE. Fujitsu Siemens announced they would provide an upgrade to WM5, then decided not to.

    Microsoft has to come up with a way to decouple Windows Mobile from the driver and hardware specific features, just as Windows has. Then we can buy the OS upgrade from Microsoft rather than from the hardware maker. It also means that Microsoft will have to decide and stick to a driver architecture so they won't break drivers.

    Most PDA makers just do not see this kind of support as a revenue centre. That puts the ball in Microsoft's court. Microsoft can make money on each copy of WM5 sold - but only if it's actually sold. Tying it to a piece of hardware means they have to have a compelling sales argument since the consumer has to upgrade by buying a whole new device.

    So far, that's not worked. In my own case, I've only bought a new PDA when a significant improvement in hardware has come out, not when the OS has updated.
  • No task management

    A multitasking OS without task management (task bar - something - anything) is truly pathetic. And I use it every day.

    This is the fifth release of the platform, and still with something so basic missing.

    Oh yeah, and it would be great for the left handed quarter of the population if you didn't have to obscure the screen while using scroll bars. I don't know how - perhaps allowing them to be moved TO THE LEFT?

    PIE is disappointly slow, as is any internet activity. They broke network sync with WM5 and the new stack and still haven't got it working. The contacts and calender are lacking.

    Come on. Getting this right is first about putting together a good product and second about marketing that product.

    Or are we supposed to applaud Microsoft for creating a platform that requires a huge third party software industry because the damn thing is not usable out of the box?
  • Upgrade issue

    The real upgrade issue I do not believe is a Microsoft issue but a vendor problem. Each one customises the OS with hardware specific functions unique to their device. It is up to them to release updates or upgrades. Now if the vendor would release a device with a guaranteed upgrade of one OS revision it would be a great thing, rather than stinging the consumers for a new device.

    Microsoft often will develop and test a new OS on an existing device, often the vendor of the device will not release the update. I had a Motorolla MPX200 which was shipped with 2002 OS, I had a update to take it too 2003. This did not come from Motorolla who did nothing, but came from an alternate source.
  • Push email on Microsoft devices????

    Can somebody PLEASE tell me a single WM5 device that will provide Push email with any carrier out of the box?

    It doesn't exist! The list of back-end requirements and specific carriers to have it all work makes the head dizzy.

    Don't get me wrong, I don't like RIM's centralised server model either, but at least when you by it, it works (until the next court case anyway).

    I believe Microsoft has a lot of work to do (and standards to comply to) before they will be anywhere near the Blackberry and I agree with Gartner; Mobile email is the killer-app for these devices into the forseeable future.