Enterprise class mobility

Blackberry v iPhone v Windows Mobile

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It used to be pretty simple. If you were a large organisation with a hard-core mobile email requirement, the only serious option from a security, robustness, manageability, usability and ease of deployment perspective was Blackberry. If you had a need to develop custom applications, then provided you were happy to construct your own middleware and management stack, then Windows Mobile was the accepted way forward.

I generalise horribly here, of course, but until relatively recently, choice in the mobile technology space was more of an illusion than a practicality for larger organisations looking at supporting more than a handful of users.

But life is starting to get quite interesting now. Microsoft has addressed many of the shortcomings on the server and management side of the equation that it was previously slated for by Reg readers as little as 15 months ago. While the usual dependencies exist in that you need the right versions of the various server and management components in place, Microsoft has, to all intents and purposes, closed the gap that existed between itself and RIM. Sure, some will contest this assertion (particularly RIM), but over the past year, the Microsoft mobility stack has grown up considerably, and can now be taken seriously as the foundation for an enterprise-class solution.

On the device side of the equation, I have never particularly been a fan of Windows Mobile as it always seemed too cluttered and convoluted to me compared to the Blackberry (from an end user perspective). This is undoubtedly because Microsoft has from the outset tried to cater for both personal wants as well as business needs in the same operating system, something that has arguably been one of the biggest issues in another area of its business with Windows Vista on the desktop. However, recent iterations of Windows Mobile combined with the efforts of device manufacturers have led to some very practical handsets emerging on the Microsoft platform for business use. The latest Treo Pro, announced just this week, is a good example of this.

What’s interesting when we look at the developments in the two device camps mentioned so far is that they seem to be converging. While Windows Mobile devices are evolving to provide a much more streamlined experience for those more interested in business communications than personal entertainment, RIM seems to be moving in the opposite direction. With the business oriented usability licked, it has incrementally added more ‘consumer’ type capability (camera, media player, gaming, etc), starting with the Pearl, moving on to the Curve, and imminently with the Bold.

This is perhaps a reflection of IT departments acknowledging that there is value in providing employees with a device that appeals to the individual. The foundation for the business case here is not that straightforward, but an argument could be made that mobile workers will be responsive and contribute more over a greater time window if they use their company device both on and off duty. Contribution to the ‘feel good’ factor that influences both the performance and retention of key people is another possible reason for taking personal needs seriously.

Against this background, it is interesting to consider the impact of the iPhone. Clearly a big hit in the consumer space, is there place for this ‘all singing all dancing’ device in the business sector? With embedded Microsoft Exchange email access, a strong argument could be made to look at this disruptive offering from Apple as a viable alternative to Blackberry and Windows Mobile devices. As I have recently discussed elsewhere, however, while I do think it is great for consumers, I am personally not convinced that the iPhone is suitable for hard-core business use. This is partially down to battery life and the inability to swap batteries when juice becomes low, but there are also, based on my own initial experience, at least, some user productivity issues.

Beyond usability, a question that is largely unanswered at the moment is how an IT department would go about securing, managing and supporting a large iPhone estate. This was one of the major inhibiting factors to large scale Windows Mobile adoption in the early days, and I can see no reason why issues such as policy management, software distribution, and regulatory compliance will somehow be put to one side simply because users regard a particular device as sexy. Interestingly, the problem here is not that dissimilar to Macs as an alternative to Windows PCs, and I suspect in the short term, we will see similar adoption patterns – i.e. individuals making unilateral decisions to bring their favourite technology in under the corporate IT radar, and small groups with high influence or special needs making a case for being regarded as an exception.

Meanwhile, the more traditional mobile handset vendors are continuing to drive the Symbian platform forward, e.g. Nokia with the E71, though since the embedding of Exchange ActiveSync as standard on high-end devices targeted at business, this (and the iPhone, for that matter) is really just an alternative front end for the Microsoft email access stack from a corporate perspective.

If we stand back and consider the market as a whole for the moment, there are really two battles going on here if we acknowledge that email is still the pivotal application for many corporate requirements. At one level we have handset device and OS vendors jostling for position to front end the Exchange server natively, and then we have the more strategic contest between the RIM stack and the Microsoft stack on the server side to facilitate access.

With this is mind, the key question is not so much about whether a Treo Pro is better than a BlackBerry, or whether the iPhone trumps them both on user desirability, it is more about the foundation upon which you are going to build a secure, manageable and flexible platform for scaling up your mobile deployments. It is therefore the congregation of competitors around the Microsoft stack that is the real threat to RIM’s current dominance.

That said, I wouldn’t for a minute underestimate RIM’s ability to defend its position on design, as well as on fitness for purpose, which while mundane, counts for a lot in the corporate sector.

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