Windows Phone 7 for the Enterprise: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

This week, Microsoft unveiled Windows Phone 7 to the public, introducing new phones, features, and partners, including AT&T and T-Mobile. Before I go any further, I should clarify that I haven’t actually seen or worked with a Windows Phone 7 device. While I’ve read documentation and seen videos (both marketing and technical) you should understand that my opinions are based solely on the descriptions and capabilities of the device provided by others. For those wishing to know more about Windows Phone 7, I break it down here by what I think it might mean for those looking to use this new technology in the enterprise.

What is Windows Phone 7?

First off – unlike the iPhone and Blackberry which are a series of devices running versions of proprietary operating systems – Windows Phone 7 is more like Android in that it is an operating system for mobile devices that any manufacture can use and implement. While Android is open source and managed by Google, Windows Phone 7 is closed source and controlled by Microsoft. This is the latest mobile operating system developed by Microsoft. Microsoft’s previous mobile operating systems all took their core user interface (UI) and functionality from the original WindowsCE OS. Windows Phone 7 however, starts over from the ground up. It has a completely new UI – based, in part, on the Zune MP3 player interface – and a completely new kernel and programming environment.

Hardware:

The Good

Microsoft has stated their commitment to a certain degree of standardization in hardware specification, similar to how Apple standardizes the iPhone. This means each device will have a minimum requirements, including memory, CPU power, and battery. From an enterprise perspective this can mean that a single application build to run on a single Windows Phone 7 device is very likely to be functional on all devices running the OS.

The Bad

While there is some form-factor hardware standardization, including minimum screen size and available buttons, the core size and shape of the device is not standardized. Already there are devices with vertical and horizontal slide out qwerty keyboards and others with no physical keyboard at all. All have different shapes, weights, and dimensions. This gives Windows Phone 7 devices the same problem as Blackberry and Android: for an enterprise developer trying to implement an integrated hardware solution the many hardware form factors prevent a single device from being used. Only external devices, such as with Bluetooth can be easily adapted for use throughout the platform.

The Ugly

Hardware manufacture are notoriously fickle when it comes to supporting a particular platform. Microsoft’s Kin OS was available for less than a year before it was abandoned. Because Microsoft, unlike Blackberry and Apple, does not produce it’s own hardware, even if they come up with the best OS in the world, if the hardware manufacturers don’t support it with devices, it will fail very quickly. In terms of device lifespan – a key piece of info for enterprise applications – the Windows Phone 7 platform is a complete unknown.

Interface:

The Good

The new “Metro” user interface for Windows Phone 7 is truly different from anything seen on a mobile phone before. From an enterprise perspective it allows programs to be featured intelligently on the home screen and puts common features and functions up front. The touch screen controls rival other devices and it is universally accepted to be a big leap forward for Microsoft whose previous mobile UI were simply scaled back versions of desktop interfaces.

The Bad

Much like the iPhone, most Windows Phone 7 applications will not truly run in the background. Instead, they can be notified by external actions to present some new data to the user, but in actuality they must be restored and reinitialized each time they are opened. While the home screen notification system is well thought out, depending on the number of applications installed can be very busy and distracting.

The Ugly

The implementation of GPS tracking applications, push notifications, and mobile-2-mobile applications is an unknown. If certain features cannot be implemented in the background it would require the application to be open at all times and would have sever problems if users wanted to actually take or make phone calls.

Software Development:

The Good

Applications build for Windows Phone 7 are developed using Microsoft’s Silverlight and XNA technologies. This is a relatively robust, and well supported environments. Animation, games, graphics, and complex communications are all possible and the amount of development tools, documentation, and examples is more than adequate for most needs. Microsoft has always been developer friendly.

The Bad

Both Silverlight and XNA, while powerful, are not Tier 1 coding platforms.Both environments rely on run-time interpreters to function. For the enterprise developer this can mean severe problems when trying to interface with objects and controls that have not been included in the interpreter. For example, a specific hardware extension might be extremely difficult to implement without support from the Microsoft development team.

The Ugly

Being developer friendly is a double edged sword. There are numerous examples of Microsoft abandoning a development technology (J# anyone?). Windows Phone 7 is completely incompatible with programs designed for Windows Mobile and vice versa. Even porting applications is less about code reuse than about code rebuild. Whose to say Windows Phone 8 might not do the same and make all your hard developed applications worthless.

Distribution:

The Good

Getting an application onto the iPhone marketplace (iTunes) could be described as both draconian and labyrinthine. The Blackberry marketplace is just labyrinthine. While not as wide open as the Android marketplace, the Windows Phone 7 marketplace should be simple to navigate and relatively easy for end users to use. Submitting, advertising, and finding your enterprise application should be straightforward. Microsoft has also always been focused on enterprise and business needs so deploying outside of the marketplace should also be far simpler than the obtuse and shaky methods available for the iPhone.

The Bad

Like any centrally controlled market place, Microsoft – at least in theory – is the gatekeepers and could be capricious and arbitrary about its approval process. However, while there is able evidence that others might behave in such a way (*cough* iTunes) Microsoft seems to be erring on the other side, focusing on it background as a developer friendly platform.

The Ugly

Blackberry and Android both use version of Java. Windows Phone 7 is more like Apples iOS in that it uses a technology not really available elsewhere. While some Silverlight implementations might be easily portable within certain limitations, building for Windows Phone 7 basically means that your code is beached. It will need to be completely re-written before it can be ported to another environment.

Overall, Windows Phone 7 has some good things going for it, and it has picked up a few of bad habits from others mobile platform providers, but the ugly truth is that for enterprise development the entire line is a huge unknown. Until, and unless, the public and the device manufacturer truly show that they are dedicated to Windows Phone 7, it’s all up in the air.

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