Enterprise Mobile, with Microsoft’s Blessing, Moves Beyond Windows Phones

I’m going to start this article in a way that’s pretty unfair to Mort Rosenthal—the founding CEO of Enterprise Mobile in Watertown, MA—by referring to some things Rosenthal told me back in early 2008 about the leading smartphone platforms.

At the time, Enterprise Mobile was just setting out on its mission to help big companies deploy Windows Mobile phones to their workers. Rosenthal argued then that Windows Mobile was the “only player” for companies looking to run business applications on smartphones. But in the intervening two years—with the support of its sole investor, Microsoft— Enterprise Mobile has grown into a non-denominational outfit, helping customers with iPhones, BlackBerry phones, Android phones, and Palm/WebOS devices in addition to Windows phones. And today Rosenthal has much nicer things to say about all of those platforms.

Of course, Rosenthal couldn’t have predicted how drastically the smartphone business was about to change. And if we knew we’d be held responsible for all our past statements and opinions, we’d probably venture a lot fewer of them. But contrasting Rosenthal’s diagnoses of the various smartphone platforms in 2008 with those from my recent check-in with him is an enlightening exercise, because it underscores just how much the mobile landscape has shifted in a short time.

Rosenthal on the iPhone then: “For one thing, it’s just not a very good phone. And it’s far from being enterprise-ready. It doesn’t do enterprise e-mail. There is no security. Plenty of our customers think it’s cool—but none of them would ever think about adopting it.”

Mobile PlatformsOn the iPhone now: “What was true then and what is true now are quite different. Apple has done a very good job of listening. They are probably better listeners than most companies who have been in the enterprise space for a long time. We’ve been part of that, making sure we are yelling in their ear. But they have evolved the iPhone platform into something that is pretty darn enterprise-ready. It is ahead of BlackBerry, even. The pivotal thing was the release of iPhone 3.0 [Apple’s June 2009 operating system upgrade], which allows for very good Exchange [e-mail management] integration as well as the adoption of policies on the iPhone. Before that, customers who were doing iPhone were doing it with a fair amount of risk, and after that the risk was mitigated.”

BlackBerry then: “Interesting, and has a stronger business following…But lately they seem to be trying to make it into a general-purpose consumer device. They got rid of the thumb wheel, which was the best thing about it. They’re trying to make it look sexier-but at the end of the day, they’ve made it less useful.”

BlackBerry now: “I certainly run into BlackBerry users who still regret not having the thumbwheel. That said, a lot of people have adopted the trackball, and now there is the touch pad. BlackBerry remains a very solid enterprise citizen. Most of their growth has come from the consumer side, but they remain the incumbent in the enterprise space. We are seeing an awful lot of companies that have 10,000 BlackBerrys starting to deploy, say, 1,000 or 2,000 iPhones as replacement devices, and probably over time iPhones and other devices are likely to replace more and more BlackBerrys, just because BlackBerry is extremely useful for what it’s good at [namely e-mail management], but it isn’t necessarily the sexiest device, nor does it provide the most compelling user experience.”

Android then: “Interesting…but if it’s all about advertising-supported services, that’s not compatible with enterprise functions.”

Android now: “At this point, the advertising-driven things with Android haven’t really materialized. The issue with Android is the diversity and fragmentation of the platform. The iPhone is an iPhone—it is a singular environment, and there is a very narrow diversity of SKUs [stock keeping units, meaning models of phones]. In Android, all of the Motorola devices are different from the HTC devices, for example, and they are differentially enterprise-ready. This is a known bug in the Android ecosystem, and I’m sure that they will fix it. But because they are committed to open architecture and open source, it is sometimes quite challenging for them to be enterprise-ready, because ‘open’ and ‘enterprise-ready’ are inherently incompatible, at least on the surface. But they are working on it.”

The big picture here, obviously, is that companies who want their employees to have access to powerful applications from their mobile devices have a lot more options these days. Rosenthal was largely right in 2008 when he said that Windows Mobile was the only player in this space, if only because it was the only mobile operating system that allowed employees to tap into Microsoft Exchange, the e-mail management system used by thousands of corporations around the world. But in the time since, Microsoft hasn’t advanced its own mobile platforms as quickly as many customers expected, while Apple has made big strides, releasing the Exchange-compatible iPhone OS 3 last year and readying the even more business-centric iPhone OS 4 for launch this summer.

The Android platform created by Google has also surged forward—in fact, sales of Android phones surpassed sales of iPhones for the first time in the first quarter of this year, according to NPD Group. Research in Motion (RIM) has seen its percentage share of the mobile device market decline from the mid-40s in 2009 to the mid-30s today, but it still has the overall lead. And now that Hewlett-Packard is taking over management of Palm and its WebOS operating system, there’s hope that this once-powerful platform will also survive and flourish.

Mort Rosenthal, founder and CEO of Enterprise MobileSo it’s not too surprising that the customers who originally came to Enterprise Mobile for help provisioning their Windows phones would start asking about the other platforms too. Indeed, the push for the switch away from an exclusive focus on Windows Mobile “came from our customers,” Rosenthal says.

“At the time we started out, in 2006, Windows Mobile was the modern platform,” he says. “And we have lots of customers who wanted to evolve to Windows Mobile in theory, but it never really got there. And there were enough false starts with things like MDM, their device management solution, that it ended up not being as successful as anybody wanted. So it became increasingly obvious that [sticking to Windows Mobile] was not a successful strategy for us. Our evolution to multiplatform coincided with the marketplace’s.”

Enterprise Mobile’s 55 employees do the same thing for companies buying iPhones, Android phones, or BlackBerrys as they did before for Windows phones: they load them up with the required business applications (a job mostly handled at the company’s Plano, TX, facility), ship them off to employees, and then offer ongoing technical support, including help dealing with lost or stolen devices.

Under most circumstances, you wouldn’t expect Microsoft to be very happy about Enterprise Mobile’s change of course. As I explained in my 2008 profile, the company was born during a phone call between Rosenthal and Steve Ballmer, who was looking for somebody to help boost Windows Mobile’s enterprise adoption. Microsoft is Enterprise Mobile’s largest shareholder and its only outside investor.

But Rosenthal’s conclusion that the startup needed to branch out came around the same time as a mid-2009 shakeup in the leadership of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile team. “After Microsoft had a change of management as far as Windows Mobile was concerned, everyone thought it was a reasonable thing for us to do,” says Rosenthal. “They had to think of it as an investor would, not as a strategic partner would, strictly speaking. They are realistic about now versus then, and the new management team, in particular, is okay with this.”

And just because there are more companies are selling smartphone platforms to businesses doesn’t mean it’s time to count Microsoft out, Rosenthal argues. He thinks the new Windows Phone 7 platform, announced in February, will be Microsoft’s most enterprise-friendly mobile operating system yet, despite the fact that the company is portraying the new OS mainly as an iPhone and Android competitor in the consumer mobile market.

“In the same way that Apple is genetically about the experience of the consumer, Microsoft is incapable of designing something that isn’t at least partially for enterprise, and I think that’s true with Windows Phone 7,” Rosenthal says. “It obviously isn’t fully thought out yet, and it’s fairly clear the focus will be on the consumer, and that’s fine. I think over time it will evolve to being a very compelling enterprise platform. It will probably be the most cloud-friendly environment, and they are going to have some pretty advanced approaches to application management.”

Rosenthal says he’s sure that Enterprise Mobile will have to keep updating its services as mobile technology evolves—perhaps offering greater support over time for Palm and even for Symbian (which remains strong in Europe). “We have also been doing a fair amount of iPad stuff,” he says. “We have several customers currently in pilot testing. It isn’t bad for a platform to go from zero to significant deployment efforts in less than a month.”

A year from now, says Rosenthal, “You can easily imagine five or six compelling stories existing in the marketplace, and at least several of those being strong for enterprises. It’s good news for the consumer, because competition creates innovation. It’s bad news for [corporate] IT [departments], because the lack of homogeneity creates complexity. But I think it’s good news for us because that complexity is a problem that we can solve. You’ve heard the Chinese curse—‘May you live in interesting times.’ We clearly live in interesting times as far as mobility is concerned.”

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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