Microsoft needs a hotter smart phone to manage

treo-750.jpgIt’s an image of the past that might have been: an enterprise employee buys a new PC, brings it to work and asks the IT manager to set it up for them. Not for their home use, for the office. They got to pick out the machine, but they expect the IT manager to worry about its image, the applications and the all the security. Of course it sounds like nonsense. But that’s exactly how smart phones are entering the enterprise today.

This is the business case, essentially, for Microsoft System Center Mobile Device Manager, which was announced at this week’s CTIA Wireless IT and Entertainment event in San Francisco. Note the word “entertainment” in the conference name, which underscores the blurring lines between commercial applications and those used by consumers. IT managers used to worry about employees downloading inappropriate applications and services onto their desktops. Now they have to approach the system management of smart phones knowing that they will likely have a lot of these applications from the get-go.

Compared to its clunky forays into the Web and the consumer market, this is an area where Microsoft typically has more expertise than anyone else. It is a platform company, and ideally it should be able to do a better job at it than anyone else. It even comes across looking a bit leading-edge for once, given that most other management software providers, including IBM’s Tivoli and HP, continue to be focused more on the traditional desktop-dominated enterprise environment. No, it doesn’t make Microsoft any more likely to buy RIM. As I’ve argued before, the integration challenges between BlackBerry Enterprise Server and Windows Mobile 6 would be more work than either company is willing to take on.

The major difference, of course, is that Microsoft is offering management for the second-most popular wireless device platform. It would have really been interesting had the company somehow managed to come up with a tool that also worked across RIM’s BlackBerry product line, but surely RIM and its partners want to corner that market. Instead, Microsoft is left with also-rans such as Samsung and Palm. There won’t be much of a race for Windows Mobile management software until someone manages to come up with a really hot Windows Mobile 6 device.

A longer-term question is whether System Center Mobile Device Manager will really turn the smart phone into something which is “owned” in a sense as much by the IT department as it is by the individual user. That’s more of a mind set shift than you might think. Users today tend to want access to the network but not the accountability and oversight that comes along with it. It also calls into question the additional support resources required for devices that are accessed around the clock and not merely between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., as desktops were. Improved management software is a great idea, but thanks to the smart phone evolution, the management of enterprise computing clients is becoming much more of a moving target.

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