Windows Phone 7 hasn’t been the runaway blockbuster that Microsoft probably envisioned when it launched nearly a year and a half ago. Despite advertising campaigns and a strategic alliance with Nokia, Windows Phone use still ranks well below iOS, Android, and BlackBerry use. But new details about the platforms future that were leaked earlier this week show Microsoft may have a solid strategy for gaining marketshare with the next major Windows Phone update, which will likely coincide with the launch of Windows 8 for PCs and/or tablets.
One thing that seems very clear from this new information is Microsoft seems to be taking cues from Apple’s playbook when it comes to creating an ecosystem of devices – like making it easy to shift apps from a phone experience to a larger tablet experience.
The question is, can Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 on tablets challenge Apple’s iPhone and iPad dominance in the business realms?
Let’s start with some background; Windows Phone was a major reboot of Microsoft’s mobile platform and strategy. In a very un-Redmond like move, the company ditched its existing Windows Mobile Platform (along with its stylus and BlackBerry-style keyboard) and started completely from scratch. That let Microsoft innovate with things like live tiles and social media integration in the OS, but it also meant Microsoft shipped a phone that didn’t integrate with the company’s own enterprise infrastructure in any real way.
That lack of enterprise integration and features was a killer and gave large segments of the business smartphone market to Apple, which had built better Active Directory and Exchange capabilities into iOS. Not to mention the range of security capabilities Apple built into iOS 4 and, more recently, iOS 5.
What new information came from this week’s leak?
Windows Phone 8 (dubbed Apollo) will support multi-core devices, four different screen resolutions (though no details on what those resolutions or the size screens they’re designed to support), removable microSD storage, and NFC. All of that gets hardware support to be on par with current Android phones and some of the presumed iPhone 5 specs.
More importantly, Windows Phone and Windows 8 developers will not just get to reuse user experience elements; they’ll be able to “reuse — by far — most of their code” when porting apps between Windows Phone and Windows 8 – much as iOS developers can reuse elements and code when designing for both the iPhone and iPad.
Clearly Microsoft is hoping this will help build up available Metro-focused apps quickly. That would help provide a solid slate of options for ARM-based Windows 8 tablets and would make make it easier for both developers and users to switch between handset and tablet devices – I’ll avoid including desktops because I don’t think anyone’s happy about the touch-oriented Metro interface on them.
That would very much mirror Apple’s approach when it launched the iPad and would give Windows Phone and Windows 8 a leg up compared to Android, where there isn’t such an easy shift between handsets and tablets, or even a broad selection of tablet-optimized apps.
Windows Phone 8 will also move alway form the Zune desktop app as a sync tool in favor a of a cloud ecosystem. That’s not surprising, considering the company finally killed of the Zune and the cloud is where device syncing is headed. Again, Microsoft is playing catch up here.
However, the biggest pieces of information are very much aimed at the enterprise. Windows Phone 8 will ship with solid encryption capabilities and will be based around the encryption schemes in other Microsoft products, including Window 7 and Windows Server. This really is just getting on par with what iOS has offered for quite some time and what Android has offered on some devices since this time last year. That said, it’s a big deal if Microsoft wants Windows Phone in workplaces like healthcare and finance where data privacy and security are critical.
The other big enterprise feature is a richer set of management capabilities based around Microsoft’s Exchange and System Center. Examples of expanded policies weren’t mentioned. We can assume, however, that complex passcode policies, requiring encryption, automatic device configuration, and app install/removal will be supported.
If Microsoft matches the device management capabilities in iOS, which I can’t imagine they won’t, this could give Windows Phone an advantage in some businesses for cost reasons. These management capabilities will be part of existing enterprise infrastructure and won’t require licensing additional device management solutions, as is the case with iOS and Android.
If Microsoft links its new Data Smart features, which allow users to manage data usage and avoid overages from carriers, to device management, this could be another big leg up for company-owned devices because it will allow a company to optimize data use, which could end up dramatically lower mobile expenses.
Do these capabilities deliver a knock-out blow to Apple’s iPhone and iPad? Probably not. They certainly make Windows Phone a more attractive candidate for business and may position Windows Phone and Windows 8 tablets as an iOS alternative (and a more attractive option than Android or RIM’s BlackBerry/PlayBook combination).
If Microsoft were delivering these products a two or three years ago, they would’ve had much better chances of getting the majority of the mobile market. But in the past two years, Apple has secured such a strong lead with the iPad and the framework for managing iOS devices, Microsoft can’t easily walk in and say they’re the best or most secure option out there.
Another major change over the past few years has been that BYOD programs and the initiative of staff members picking their mobile technology has completely changed how companies approach mobile. The days of IT buying the device and apps and having full control of it are gone. All one has to do is look at RIM’s slide in the market to recognize that.
Microsoft will gain ground with Windows Phone 8, probably at the expense of RIM, but it won’t completely dominate the market. Apple has simply led the show for too long at this point.