Microsoft gets the hang of funky devices: Xbox magic for enterprise

Playtime for the workers

Microsoft Surface 3

How did that happen? Microsoft has become a hardware company. There is now a range of devices, from phones to phablets to tablets and tablets that verge on laptops, being made by Microsoft.

In truth Microsoft is a long-established hardware company but mice and keyboards don’t capture the imagination like devices that run software. Indeed when Microsoft dabbled there before, it was not the most glorious of times.

But it feels different now. I have drifted into a Microsoft world. OK, I use Word to such an extent that I type notes for the milkman but all my joined-up stuff was Google.

Moving to Microsoft was due to a combination of hardware and software. A friend upgraded from a Surface RT to a Surface 2 and gave me the RT.

I didn’t even particularly want a tablet. Google dropped (free) ActiveSync for Outlook and I bought a Nokia 925, just because I thought it was cool from a technical perspective and I quite liked the 800 I’d had before.

Ironically the apps gap made me more productive. I’d had an iPhone, indeed at a previous job I was in the upside-down position of having a BlackBerry Bold 9000 as a personal phone and an iPhone as a company phone.

I couldn’t believe the company had given me the world’s best Gameboy. When Angry Birds came out I had three stars on every single level and found all the trunks.

So many toys, so little time

Even the fantastic Dell laptop (XPS 14, 1.9GHz i7, GeForce GT 630M, 512GB SSD) I had bought to cover the Mobile World Congress ran Windows 8. So with my world organically having moved to Microsoft, and not just Microsoft but Windows 8, I made a corporate strategy decision and blew £70 on a hosted Exchange solution (a bit ironic having been too mean to pay Google for ActiveSync).

And my productivity soared. Well, no. What changed was the reduced amount of arsing around spent trying to get things to work, now that I had my files at home, at The Register, on my tablet or laptop all at the same time because they were on OneDrive.

My diary sync always worked because I could put an appointment into my phone or my desktop and it was automatically everywhere. Everything became that bit less fractious.

Unfortunately it now means I have a problem. Having bought into the ecosystem I find there are too many toys to buy. I lust after a Nokia 1020 with the camera grip and a 930 and a Surface 3. I really want a Surface 3 because I use a Livescribe Echo smart pen and can see that Surface does the same thing but is integrated.

I also fancy that other bit of hardware that usually gets dodged by corporate types, an Xbox One with Titanfall.

Hard to resist

Those are the reasons why things will change. Windows works well for users and users want the devices.

The corporate world has been happy with, or at least lived with, Windows on the desktop and then supporting BlackBerry/iPhone/Android as the fashion of the moment moved from BBM to cool shiny Apple to “the Galaxy S3 is the phone to have” and users dragged purchasing with them.

The improved productivity – multiplied along the lines of Metcalfe’s Law – as users start to communicate with tools such as OneNote means there is a business imperative to get users onto the same software on their phones as on the desktop.

While there is Office for the iPhone and there are mobile device management solutions that integrate Windows and the big mobile operating systems the situation is far from slick.

It might seem that forcing Windows phones on users to make everything work better is just the IT organisation being proscriptive, but making kit work together is what it is paid for. It is not what the people running manufacturing or dealing with customers, finance, recruitment or sales are paid for.

However comprehensive the IT support might be if there is kludge it will always show and it is the user who will be hurt first.

But consumer pull is what will matter. It makes rolling out devices so much easier if consumers like them – and the current Microsoft/Nokia portfolio is very likeable. Even the entry-level Lumia 630 is something people will want to own.

The 635 has 4G and dual SIM options, while there are two 6in Phablets with the 1320 and 1520 and the Lumia 2520 tablet with cat 4, 4G. Throw in Surface 3 and laptops and users can flow from a 4.5in display to displays of over 14in with a single mobile way of working.

The distinction between laptop and tablet becomes blurred

Clipping on one of the excellent keyboards makes it a completely sensible laptop: it doesn’t feel like a compromise in any way and working with a mouse (wired or wireless) reconfigures the UI to meet the way you work. The distinction between laptop and tablet becomes blurred.

The Lumia 630 was created to conquer the developing world. Nokia’s failures against Apple have been well publicised but it is the way the emerging world has changed that has really affected the volumes.

Nokia understands the consumer landscape and the 630 and its 4G sibling were built with the knowledge that even at the lowest price point a smartphone can be a status symbol.

It has to be attractive both in how it feels and what it does. A quad core processor, decent screen and 5-megapixel camera make it something the company is justifiably proud of.

The result is a device with a SIM-free price of around £100 which won’t make users feel shortchanged. It can be rolled out to numbers of staff who would traditionally have been equipped with a voice-only device.

The phablets make a great solution for executives who don’t want to lug about a big device and a budget solution for field workers who need web, corporate apps and email.

The 1520 is one of the nicest devices on the market with a 20-megapixel camera and one of the highest-resolution displays available. A 1920 x 1080, 6in display works out at 367 pixels per inch (ppi), and with an IPS display that boosts the contrast it is great to read.

Light fantastic

At 209g it is well below the 250g point at which devices start to feel heavy. Indeed the landmark Nokia 2110 weighed about 230g and broke new ground in portability.

The Lumia 1320 also fits the bill at 220g. The screen does not have the same high resolution at 1280 x 720 but that still works out at 244ppi, which is pretty spectacular.

The mobile world has learned that what matters is the mixture of devices and services. Integration makes things easier for everyone. It is why BlackBerry phones rose to dominance with BlackBerry Enterprise Server and iPhones with iTunes, but neither RIM nor Apple could boast a product portfolio as wide-ranging as that of Microsoft and Nokia combined.

Security is a big part of the equation and Windows Phone is generally felt to be more secure than either Android or iOS. The availability of mobile device management solutions that serve as watch dogs helps.

The final piece of the puzzle is the interplay between users and the IT organisation. The shift from BYOD (bring your own device) to CYOD (choose your own device) means that putting a Lumia in the portfolio of available devices can make users feel they are in control.

Microsoft is reminding the corporate market that it has been a hardware company for a long time, and it is not just about mice and keyboards. The Xbox has been on sale since the end of 2001 and games players are much more demanding than corporate users.

Having a phone from the company that makes the Xbox makes it feel a little less "enterprise". That is best described as a halo effect. ®

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