Sometime in the next few weeks, Microsoft will reveal features, services and shortcomings for Windows Phone 7 in the enterprise. It will be one of those good news/bad news moments for corporate IT departments.
So far, Microsoft's mobile platform executives have hammered at the consumer focus for the radically redesigned Windows Phone operating system. At this week's MIX10 web developer conference, where details of the Windows Phone platform and development tools were unveiled, executives sidestepped, minimised or deflected nearly every question about how and how well the operating system will play in business mobility.
"Not all the enterprise elements are being disclosed here," says Todd Brix, senior director, product management, for Microsoft's mobile communications business. "More will be coming up later in the spring."
But based on comments, acknowledgements and hints, here's what we know:
1. A platform shift
Microsoft's mobile platform is no longer enterprise-centred. It takes its cues and priorities from Microsoft's research on one issue: What is needed to make an emotionally compelling user experience for consumers.
The marketing mantra is that Windows Phone is the phone anyone can use for personal and business needs, desires and passions. "With Windows Phone 7, we said 'let's build a really compelling user experience' and we did an overhaul of many parts of the operating system," Brix says. That "experience" can then be enhanced and focused to meet specific enterprise needs. "Windows Phone 7 won't necessarily have all that Windows Mobile 6.5 has [for the enterprise]," he says.
The success of the iPhone and the fast-rising adoption of Google Android-based phones seem to justify that new focus and its relevance for enterprise users. And Brix says that Microsoft has been "kind of surprised [at the] ton of interest" in Windows Phone, expressed by independent software vendors (ISV) targeting business users.
2. Full break from previous Windows Mobile applications
Say goodbye to native applications, backwards compatibility and multitasking.
Applications written for the older Windows Mobile platform (now renamed Windows Phone Classic) installed directly on the device and ran on the underlying OS kernel, analogous to applications on Windows PCs.
By contrast, all Windows Phone 7 applications execute within one of two Microsoft runtime environments: XNA for games, and Silverlight for all others.
Furthermore, Windows Mobile applications will not run on Windows Phone devices, Microsoft officials confirmed. Though it has repeatedly emphasised that, depending on the application, developers may be able to reuse or readily adapt it for the new platform.
There are several implications to this. You won't be able to just load existing line-of-business Windows Mobile applications written in C/C++ or other languages on Windows Phone 7 devices. They will have to be redesigned and rewritten, though because of Microsoft's development strategy, a substantial amount of existing code in some applications can be reused directly or used with minor changes.
A related problem for some is the fact that Microsoft is not exposing the multitasking capabilities of the underlying Windows Embedded CE R3 kernel to developers.
But some of the benefits of multitasking are being offered via such things as the push notification service, the common integrated tasks and capabilities that apply to applications residing in one of several Windows Phone 7 application groupings, called "hubs," such as People, Music, Photos and Office.
"It's very different from Apple," says iPhone user Mark Tinderholt, a developer with Avanade, a systems integration joint-venture by Accenture and Microsoft, which has done some big Windows Mobile deployments. "The iPhone has discrete apps that do one thing. There's very limited integration." Tinderholt speaks from experience: he has 35 apps on his own iPhone and organises and administers them manually, with rather limited options.
3. Existing skills and updated Microsoft toolkits
Enterprise software creators and ISVs will be able to leverage a wide range of existing Microsoft developer skills and expertise to begin building applications for Windows Phone. Apart from the new mobile user interface, this is the most important element in Microsoft's aggressive attempt to be a mobile leader.
Today, with a gazillion applications listed in Apple's App Store and a megagazillion downloads, it's easy to forget that when the first iPhone was released, the only software development option offered by Apple was for web applications within the iPhone's Safari browser. It was only after immediate, passionate demands for an software development kit that Apple came across with one and crafted the App Store.
Microsoft has all of this already in place, and millions of Windows and web developers using Microsoft tools can start writing phone applications. In many cases, substantial of amount of existing code can be imported and reused.
The latest versions of Microsoft's core developer tools all support Windows Phone development: Visual Studio 2010, Silverlight 4, Expression Blend 4 beta and XDNA Game Studio 4. All incorporate a Windows Phone emulator, running on a complete build of the Windows Phone 7 OS. Visual Studio programmers can drag and drop controls onto a Windows Phone surface, bring in existing Silverlight libraries or Azure cloud projects, and wire them up to data sources, behaviors and services, just like they do when writing software for a Windows PC.
It's a Microsoft-focused environment to be sure, but most enterprises have a strong Microsoft base with user PCs, web infrastructure and backend servers.
"Silverlight doesn't look like a problem," says Piers Finlayson, product manager (and former coder dealing with human interfaces) with Metaswitch Networks, which uses, among other tools, Microsoft Visual Studio.
4. Windows Phone Marketplace tailored for enterprise
For mobile users, the redesigned Windows Phone Marketplace, accessed via its own "hub" on the device, will be the sole location for finding and downloading phone applications.
But, in one of the few enterprise specific acknowledgements at MIX10, Microsoft executives promised that software distribution "alternatives" will be unveiled later this spring. These could include secure private areas on the Marketplace site, where employees could browse and download company specific software or a server implementation of a private Marketplace behind the corporate firewall.
That will give IT more control and security over corporate applications directly access enterprise applications, data and services.
5. Security and management infrastructure
Historically, Windows Mobile (and Research in Motion's BlackBerry) has coexisted with Microsoft's server infrastructure for mobile security and management. The key addition to the Windows Mobile 6.1 release in April 2008 was the addition of hooks into a then-new server product: System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008.
Microsoft Exchange Active Sync is code that lets Windows Mobile devices sync with Exchange Server, receive push email and implement a range of security options, such as remote data wipe and encrypted connections. ActiveSync is licenced and used by other platforms such as iPhone. In fact, the iPhone's expanded ActiveSync support helps to account for its inroads into the enterprise, despite the fact Apple does not and will not provide an enterprise scale security and management framework comparable to Microsoft or RIM.
The unanswered question is how much of this infrastructure is supported in Windows Phone 7? As Brix's comment above suggests, there are hints that some of this rich capability will be lost, at least in the first release of the operating system. Will the mobile VPN still be supported?
6. Microsoft Office and SharePoint
From the user perspective, the most visible enterprise connection in Windows Phone 7 is the "Office Hub" location, with the ability to create and edit Microsoft Office documents, including Word, Powerpoint and Excel, and support for SharePoint, Microsoft's widely adopted enterprise collaboration platform.
"The Office Hub is the tip of the spear and SharePoint is part of that," says Charlie Kindel, partner group program manager for the Windows Phone application platform and developer experience at Microsoft. "There's a huge development platform associated with both of them. All this is [now] available on the phone."
Windows Phone users can leverage their Exchange Server credentials to directly access corporate SharePoint sites, Microsoft's Brix says. Among other things, that means groups of mobile users can create Windows Phone 7 live tiles of SharePoint-based documents and other information, and open, review and edit them. "You can do all this on a SharePoint environment, without email exchanges or an Internet browsing experience," Brix says.
The mobilisation of SharePoint has been a Microsoft priority, created by intense enterprise interest. One blog took note of a November 2009 demonstration of SharePoint's expanded mobile capabilities.
An important part of Windows Phone 7 in this context is Microsoft Office OneNote 2007. OneNote is a intended as a "digital notebook" that lets users quickly create, gather and search, typed or digitally handwritten notes along with other text, pictures, and audio and video recordings.
The Windows Phone implementation will enable two-way synchronisation, via Wi-Fi, cellular or USB cable, of notes and information on the phone and on the PC.