Microsoft's mobile business lags well behind Apple Inc.'s and Google Inc.'s, but channel companies see potential in Windows Phone 8 as an enterprise play that also provides a developer-friendly platform.
Windows Phone 8 hit the market Oct. 29, marking Microsoft's latest attempt to grow its tiny slice of the mobile OS sector. Gartner's third-quarter worldwide smartphone market numbers peg Microsoft's OS share at 2.4 percent, compared with 72.4 percent for Android and 13.9 percent for iOS. Those mobile sales figures, however, do show some improvement: Microsoft captured only 1.5 percent of the market for the year-earlier quarter.
Channel executives said Microsoft could see further improvement in the smartphone market, citing the company's device-minding technology as one edge.
John Sprunger, mobility practice lead at West Monroe Partners, a business and technology consulting firm based in Chicago, suggested that management capabilities may mean an increase in use of Windows Phone for business, particularly with the decline of Research In Motion's BlackBerry. Sprunger said BlackBerry had been the corporate standard for mobile device security and administration.
Gartner's Q3 report gives BlackBerry a 5.3 percent market share, down from 11 percent last year.
"The king was BlackBerry for years, but they are fading pretty quickly now," Sprunger said. "Windows Phone is going to pick up a lot of the slack there."
With Windows Phone, the OS itself provides management capabilities. Sprunger pointed to Windows Phone 8's Company Hub as an example. Company Hub organizes a company's apps and contacts in one segment of the phone, with access provided via a Windows domain account log-in.
"You don't have to buy a separate product such as BlackBerry Enterprise Server -- which is not cheap -- to be able to do the same kind of security and management," he explained. "You don't have to buy a lot of expensive mobile device management software."
Vladimir Shchur, a qualified ASP.NET developer at Elinext Group, an alliance of software development firms based in Minsk, Belarus, said such features as Company Hub exemplify Windows Phone 8's main attribute: fast information access.
"I think this principle is a great move for business purposes," Shchur said. "This is one of the greatest advantages if we compare it with Android and iOS."
Ira Entis, president of the government services sector at Agilex, a technology solutions provider based in Chantilly, Va., cited Microsoft's management tools, such as System Center 2012, as another plus for the company's mobile strategy.
"Virtually every agency has Microsoft management infrastructure," he said.
He described the penetration of Microsoft's core management tools as widespread, given that the preponderance of agencies using Microsoft Exchange Server and, by extension, Active Directory. Microsoft, Entis added, is now trying to leverage its tools into managing a variety of heterogeneous mobile devices.
Sprunger also noted the large scale adoption of Microsoft products such as Exchange and SharePoint at the back end of many enterprises. Sprunger said he believes that quite a few organizations will adopt Windows Phone 8 because it readily integrates with their existing Microsoft environments.
"It is really easy to add Windows Phone right into that," he said.
Microsoft may have some mobile momentum, but resellers and integrators aren't predicting a rapid ascent for Windows Phone 8. Sprunger said he believes Microsoft will put its money and muscle behind Windows Phone 8. But even so, the company faces an uphill battle, he said.
"I think it is going to be a long, slow climb to something that looks more like 15 to 20 percent of the market in three to four years," Sprunger said.
Entis, meanwhile, said Microsoft finds itself in different circumstances in the enterprise space as opposed to the consumer market. While Apple and Google enjoy an enormous presence on the consumer side, the situation is a bit more complicated in enterprise markets such as the federal arena.
Entis said Microsoft's enterprise presence is significantly larger than either Apple or Google, but noted a couple of mitigating factors. For one, Apple's and Google's early mover advantage means the companies already have a mobile presence in many agencies. In addition, many organizations are entertaining a more heterogeneous IT future for a variety of reasons, he said
Ron Watt, director of marketing at Empowered Networks, a Canadian systems integrator with a specialty in enterprise wireless, cited Microsoft's enterprise role, but also noted mixed environments as mobile adoption's general direction.
"Enterprises that are already heavily invested in Microsoft platforms, and custom applications, might consider adopting Windows Phone 8 as an enterprise standard," Watt said. "However, the trends are moving away from a top-down standard of a single platform for smartphones, and towards support for multiple smartphone platforms."
Watt said the bring your own device (BYOD) approach favors multiple devices over a single standard.
Ty Rollin, chief architect at Mobiquity Inc., a professional services firm that focuses on mobile solutions, said Windows Phone 8 will live or die based on consumer adoption, as opposed to enterprise purchases.
"Given that a person's mobile phone is such a personal device, I don't see corporate purchase of phones going forward," he said.
Easier for developers
As channel players cultivate Windows Phone business, they expect the task of getting in-house development staff up to speed should prove straightforward. They believe the platform simplifies app development.
"The development experience is a lot easier than that of Android or iOS," Sprunger said. "An iPhone app typically takes 5x to 10x longer to develop than building a comparable Windows Phone app. Android can be worse."
More on Windows Phone for business
Android, Sprunger said, involves more device testing due to the different devices and different OS versions.
"It is a much friendlier development experience just by virtue of not having to deal with a lot of different device profiles and different OS versions," Sprunger said of Windows Phone.
Other plusses for Windows Phone 8 include developer familiarity and code reuse.
Sprunger said developers with .Net and Silverlight development skills can easily pick up Windows Phone app development. And developers who have built an enterprise or Web app in VB.NET or C# can reuse that code when creating a new app for the Windows Phone platform, he added.
Rollin said Android, iOS and Windows Phone 8 all have well-established development environments, but noted that the latter currently lacks developers who make a living off of it.
"There are lots of .Net developers who can move into this space," Rollin said. "[Microsoft] still has some barriers to get adoption by developers, with the most notable being device penetration numbers."
Shchur cited ease of development and a low threshold for .NET developers as advantages for Windows Phone app development.
"Usually I develop ASP.NET applications, and I found [it] very convenient to start making simple applications for Windows Phone," he said.
John Moore has written on business and technology topics for more than 25 years.
This was first published in December 2012