I like Windows Phone 8.1. I mean I really like it. Even more shocking than that is the fact that most of my experience with the Windows Phone 8.1 preview has been on one of the most bare-bones entry-level Nokia handsets available in the U.S.: the $99 no contract/prepaid Lumia 520 on AT&T. Despite the device's humble specs, the OS runs quite smoothly; the support for existing Windows Phone devices, even low-end devices, is a big contrast to Microsoft's decision to require Windows Phone 7 users to trade up to newer handsets if they wanted Windows Phone 8.
I'll even go so far as to say that I could be quite happy with Windows Phone 8.1 as my primary mobile OS. If an employer were to issue me a Windows Phone device or if the platform was strongly favored over Apple's iOS or Android in a bring-your-own-device program, I'd likely accept the phone and use it daily for work and personal use. I doubt I'd see enough value in carrying around a second smartphone under those circumstances.
As someone who's spent more than a decade writing about Apple technology in business, where iOS maintains a significant lead over the competition, that may sound surprising. But the truth is that Microsoft has finally managed to create a smartphone platform that has the potential to be very competitive, particularly in enterprise environments.
Not the same old Microsoft
I actually acknowledged some of the advantages and the innovation Microsoft delivered in Windows Phone 7 when it launched in 2010. The problem was that while there were a lot of positives about the platform -- the then-new concept of live tiles being one of them -- it was clearly half-baked on arrival, largely didn't integrate with enterprise systems (a major shock), and was very Microsoft-centric when it came to services and apps. In the intervening years, that's largely changed.
The Windows Phone Calendar app showing event data from an iCloud account (light theme).
Microsoft has developed enterprise integration options for Windows Phone and has expanded the management and security capabilities of the platform while also building support into its Enterprise Management Suite (EMS) for other platforms, including iOS and Samsung's KNOX.
One of the most appealing aspects of the platform was the intense effort by Microsoft to support not only its own cloud services like Office 365 and OneDrive, but also cloud and social media accounts from competitors. Nothing illustrates this more than the fact that Windows Phone 8.1 supports syncing of some data -- calendar and contacts -- with Apple's iCloud.
The ability to sync with the dozen or so calendars I have in iCloud, most of them shared with other iOS or Mac users, was my biggest concern about potentially adding a Windows Phone device to my mobile hardware collection. The sync capabilities are also well polished. Events are displayed much as they are on an iOS device (and, quite frankly, I like the Windows Phone calendar better than the iOS 7 calendar app on the iPhone).
Similar levels of integration are offered for other common third-party accounts. The message seems clear: Microsoft would rather you use its services exclusively, and the user experience is weighted to encourage this. But it acknowledges the need to support the ecosystems of its rivals to some degree because it's in a distant third place in both the consumer and business markets.
Windows Phone's competition in the enterprise
Beyond the user experience, Microsoft has some particularly potent advantages in the race for market share in the business world. The biggest is the company's decision to share code across its platforms. This has real significance for enterprise app developers because they can reuse code across Windows 8.x desktop and tablet applications as well as Windows Phone apps and can use the same set of developer tools. That's a powerful incentive for an organization to encourage Windows Phone adoption.
The other advantage is in integration with both new and established Microsoft technology and infrastructure. One of the things that makes the company's EMS proposition so attractive is that it allows IT professionals to use the same tools to manage mobile devices that they use to manage PCs. For organizations that haven't invested in EMS, this could be quite an attractive way to go.
Although Microsoft has advantages, it's difficult to see Windows Phone displacing the iPhone as the corporate or BYOD device of choice in the near term. In most markets, Windows Phone has a minimal market share (though adoption is higher in Europe than the U.S.) and, according to some reports, the platform may have actually lost some market share.
Apple's smartphone market share, on the other hand, is signficant (albeit behind Android in most markets) and the company has been steadily gaining ground. Under Tim Cook's tenure as CEO, Apple has come to focus more and more on the needs of its enterprise customers -- both the individual users and the IT professionals that support them.
With iOS 7, the company signficantly ratcheted up its management and security capabilities, created a new mobile app licensing mechanism, and, in iOS 7.1, introduced a volume configuration and deployment model. That model allows IT to bulk enroll and manage iPhones and iPads without needing to physically work with each device. The company also recently released additional enterprise deployment and security guides for IT teams.
The Email and Accounts section of Windows Phone 8.1 (dark theme).
More recently, Apple highlighted the diversity of enterprise apps in major enterprise companies including Deutsche Bank, Siemens, Eli Lilly and FedEx, each of which had created a dozen or more enterprise iOS apps for employees. That's no small investment and it will almost certainly encourage companies that have adopted iOS to continue to view the platform as their primary mobile OS.
Microsoft could leapfrog over Android in the enterprise
While Apple has managed to carve out a big part of the enterprise mobility market, Android hasn't. Although Android is supported to one extent or another in many workplaces, it presents a unique set of challenges for enterprise IT shops. Most Android devices do not run the most recent, and therefore most secure, version of Android. Because Google allows manufacturers and carriers to control so much of the upgrade process, patches and even whole major releases may never reach some devices, causing a major security concern even when EMS solutions are employed.
EMS should be: EMM (enterprise mobility management) and mobile security solutions are employed.
Android is also not designed to be a closed and secure system like iOS and manufacturers can modify the OS in significant ways. Samsung is trying to use this freedom to create an enterprise-grade version of Android using its KNOX and SAFE programs; other Android manufacturers have made some strides in the same direction. The problem is that manufacturers rely on different security APIs, making consistent universal security and management a challenge.
While it's hard to see Windows Phone grabbing Android's consumer market share, the platform's new level of polish and extended feature set put it on par with iOS and Android. Given the advantages Windows Phone has in the enterprise market -- and the general impression that Android may be too big a challenge to manage effectively -- it's not inconceivable that with enough growth and encouragement from IT, the OS could gain a strong foothold in enterprise organizations and outpace Android adoption over time.
It's also worth noting that, like Apple, Microsoft has kept stricter control of the Windows Phone update process than has Google. That is a major factor and could become even more significant now that Microsoft has completed its acquisition of Nokia's mobile phone business.
Adhering to the mobile-first, cloud-first ethic
Windows Phone 8.1 and Microsoft's EMS, combined with the release of Office for iPad, highlight the company's strategy of being mobile-first and delivering enterprise-grade capabilities across the realistic range of mobile computing in the workplace.Offering a compelling experience, a relatively easy transition from iPhone or Android and a feature-complete mobile OS could help Windows Phone gain the traction that has pretty much eluded the platform since its introduction.
Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to CITEworld.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at RyanFaas.com and follow him on Twitter ( @ryanfaas).
Read more about windows phone in Computerworld's Windows Phone Topic Center.