Dell's Windows Phone 7 Switch: Good for Microsoft's Enterprise Hopes?

Dell's decision to switch its workers from BlackBerry to Windows Phone 7 could be a sign that mobile enterprise is swinging in Microsoft's favor. Maybe.

Is Windows Phone 7 slated to become the next big enterprise device?

That becomes a more pressing question following news that Dell plans on dumping Research In Motion's BlackBerry from its corporate offices, in favor of Windows Phone 7 devices manufactured by the company. Within hours of that news leaking online, RIM responded with some biting commentary:

"We find it highly unlikely that they will actually save any money with this move and far more likely they were looking for a little free publicity," Mark Guibert, RIM's senior vice president of corporate marketing, wrote in an e-mail to Dow Jones Newswires.

In a Nov. 5 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Dell Chief Financial Officer Brian Gladden indicated that the company's switch will save around 25 percent on mobile communication costs, and that negotiations had begun with T-Mobile to carry corporate voice and data.

Dell's Venue Pro includes a 4.1-inch multitouch display and sliding QWERTY keyboard. Fronted with ultra-durable Gorilla Glass, it closely resembles RIM's BlackBerry Torch 9800, which also includes a sliding keyboard. The difference, of course, is the Venue Pro's Windows Phone 7 operating system.

Whether Dell made the switch to promote its own smartphone line or if it decided that ejecting RIM indeed translated into substantial cost savings, other large businesses are likely to debate whether to embrace Windows Phone 7 for their executives and workers.

Some analysts believe that, while Windows Phone 7's tight integration with features such as SharePoint offers a lot to the enterprise, the platform does have an Achilles' heel. "It will be hard for apps to be ported unless they are already Silverlight-compatible or built-in standard .Net mobile protocols," Jack Gold, primary analyst for J. Gold Associates, wrote in an Oct. 11 research note. "The majority of enterprise apps are not."

That being said, Gold added, businesses could find a lot of benefit in the Windows Phone 7 platform. "Business users [are] at the core of the previous Windows Mobile constituency, but many have defected over the past year," Gold wrote. "It is unclear whether Microsoft can win them back, or even keep the existing, albeit significantly diminished, base of enterprise users." Despite that, he added, "the business hub on WP7 looks compelling (provided you are an Exchange/Outlook user)."

Microsoft seems aware of the need to push Windows Phone 7 as a business device, having announced at several points its intention to include productivity-centric features such as cut-and-paste into future editions of the software. It has also been encouraging developers to build work-style apps for the platform.

"Critics have commented on the lack of specific features like copy & paste and lack of 100s of thousands of new applications," Arpan Shah, Microsoft's director for SharePoint, wrote in a Nov. 4 posting on his corporate blog. "And while both are true, copy & paste will be available as an update in a matter of weeks (early 2011) and as for applications, it's just a matter of time."

Shah's blog posting suggests the timetable for the feature's addition is still on track. While early critics focused on that missing cut-and-paste, Windows Phone 7's first iteration will also lack support for tethering, Adobe Flash and full multitasking.

To be fair, despite its hold on the enterprise market, the BlackBerry also lacks a large number of apps-at least in comparison to the Apple iPhone or the growing Google Android family of devices. Businesspeople have traditionally gravitated toward RIM's offerings because of their messaging abilities and reputation for security. But Microsoft wants Windows Phone 7 to appeal on those fronts as well; a substantial part of the company's marketing push, particularly its television ads, portrays the smartphones as the ultimate timesavers-at least when it comes to using mobile features. And its "Office" and "People" hubs have been designed to feed information to users in a tightly integrated, streamlined way.

But whether Dell represents the first of many companies to jump to Windows Phone 7 remains to be seen. Microsoft doubtlessly hopes that's the case. RIM most likely doesn't.