Windows Phone 8: Ready For Business?

Windows Phone 8 has five important new elements for enterprises.
Windows 8 Company Hub
Windows 8 Company Hub

These five Windows Phone 8 elements have particular importance for enterprises:

1. Better security. Windows Phone 7 lacked on-device security. This was a major impediment for IT department deployment, an obvious boil on the butt of the platform. Windows Phone 8 adds encryption, and it's based on BitLocker, the same technology Microsoft uses to encrypt data on the desktop. Microsoft also added a secure boot mechanism.

2. MDM support. Microsoft Phone 7 lacked mobile device management hooks, and most MDM software companies have ignored the platform as a result. Windows Phone 8 will get device management support, said Microsoft Corporate VP Joe Belfiore. But what that means isn't exactly clear. Here's what Belfiore said: "IT administrators can use the techniques and tools they are already using today to manage PCs, to manage Windows Phone."

Later, I asked Microsoft Product Manager Larry Lieberman for specifics, to no avail. That's all Microsoft was prepared to say. So while it is inconceivable that, say, Mobile Iron or Airwatch or Zenprise would be precluded from managing Windows Phone 8 devices, Microsoft was unwilling to commit to that, which makes this part of the announcement slightly unsavory at best. Why raise the issue at all? If Microsoft can expose device details to its own tools, it should be relatively simple to do so for third party tools.

3. Enterprise app deployment. Microsoft, like other mobile ecosystem providers, allows corporate-style applications in its app store, Marketplace. IT developers have to submit those apps for certification. That's a good thing, since Microsoft ensures that each app runs well, is secure, and behaves as it should. Then, IT obtains certificates to distribute to end users for access to those private applications in Marketplace. This all works using Windows Live IDs, which creates another point of administration for IT.

With Windows 8, those applications can exist anywhere: on the app store as they do today, or on a web server of private file server, or using cloud infrastructure. The IT department can distribute them however it wishes (a link in an e-mail, for instance). In other words, IT gets control of the application deployment experience. (Microsoft still retains the rights to revoke the app if it behaves badly, Lieberman told me.)

4. Company Hub. Windows Phone 8 includes another model for corporate IT control. Company Hub is, essentially, an app. IT can use it, distribute it to employees, and customize it to incorporate not only approved app store applications, but also corporate-developed Windows Phone 8 apps--a company workflow system, for example, or a time-off or expense app. This sits on the phone behind the Company Hub tile.

5. Underlying OS kernel update. Belfiore said that the Windows Phone 7 kernel had leftovers from Windows CE. No big surprise there. But the new kernel for Windows Phone 8 includes a variety of new services (the networking services include IPv6 support; there's underlying support for security, graphics and multimedia, and multicore processor architectures).

Most important, the new kernel represents what Microsoft calls a "shared Windows core," meaning that the essential code is common with Windows 8. Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 also have a shared set of APIs. That simplifies life for developers. Except for accounting for aspects like screen size and the accelerometers found in mobile devices, and varying input methods such as touch and voice, developers should have a relatively easy time creating applications that work across Windows 8 platforms, including Windows 8 Phone.

Microsoft talked about how this will make it easier for its hardware ecosystem partners to create a common set of drivers across platforms. It also lets application developers gain access to multiple end user screens quickly, increasing the likelihood of success. Or so the theory goes.

Microsoft also announced that it will support native C and C++ code which will also make it easier to port iOS and Android apps to Windows Phone 8 (and Windows 8), said Kevin Gallo, Microsoft's partner group program manager for the Windows Phone division. This also makes it easier for developers to use native open source libraries.

From an enterprise perspective, the support for native code gives developers the ability to easily port legacy applications to the phone.

Windows Phone 8 developers will be able to access multitasking. Gallo provided two examples of this. First, Windows Phone 8 incorporates VoIP (using Skype) and video chat at the OS level, and VoIP acts just like a regular cell phone call. So all of this is accessible within apps (if the developer takes advantage of it), plus VoIP can run in the background. The same is true for location-based applications. In Gallo's demonstration of location-based access, he also showed that developers will also have access to Windows Phone speech commands.

If this new kernel, with its shared code, works the way Microsoft outlined, independent and corporate developers will have some interesting choices to consider--including whether it now makes more sense to create Windows Phone apps.

I wish Microsoft had gone a little further, a little faster, and revealed a little more, but the plodding giant isn't stupid: It is attacking Apple and Google from the only place it possibly can--the convergence of consumer and enterprise users and their devices.

Windows Phone 8 should make for an interesting second half of 2012--and may well determine Microsoft's fate in mobility.

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