The Microsoft admin’s brave, new post-Windows Phone world

The Microsoft admin’s brave, new post-Windows Phone world
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Microsoft admins rejoice! Microsoft may have abandoned the mobile device market, but it's actually stronger in the complete mobile market

As the industry was focused last week on Google's I/O developer conference and the specter of its Google Home voice assistant monitoring everything you say, Microsoft quietly dropped a bomb about the future of Windows smartphones: They don't have one.

Microsoft sensibly sold off its overseas low-end phone business, which it acquired from Nokia a few years ago -- those old-school Nokia phones have no relationship to Wndows Mobile or anything else Microsoft does. But it also essentially killed off its Windows phones, moving its own Lumia smartphones and third-party smartphones running Windows Mobile into "support" status. Translation: "discontinued."

As a result, Microsoft-centric admins now have to face the reality that their mobile portfolio will be made up mainly of Apple devices, with some Samsung and perhaps other Android devices in the mix. The good news, as I'll explain shortly, is that you can support those devices and remain Microsoft-centric.

The all-Microsoft device portfolio won't happen

One of the attractions to many in IT was the notion of an all-Microsoft client environment: Windows PCs and Windows phones running Microsoft software and services, for what was hoped to be a better-integrated, simpler-to-manage IT portfolio. After all, most IT organizations are steeped in Windows and Windows management, and the intrusion of iOS and Android mobile devices has made their lives more complex.

Although Microsoft says it will continue to develop the finally decent Windows 10 Mobile, even Microsoft stalwarts like ZDnet's Mary Jo Foley saw the announcement for what it is: the likely end of Microsoft mobile devices, or at least today's incarnation of it. Foley still holds out hope for a future Surface smartphone that will somehow rewrite history.

Of course, that's an old hope, unfulfilled among Microsoft fans, who've been looking to the future ever since Microsoft abandoned the original Windows Mobile, replaced it with the less-capable, insecure Windows Phone, and debuted the utterly horrible Kin. Microsoft's later Nokia purchase led to more of the same unrealized "maybe next time" hope.

In a Twitter conversation, Foley suggested these long-rumored Surface phones might be high-quality, premium-build devices to attract business users. Umm, like the iPhone has long been and Android devices like the Samung Galaxy S, LG G, and HTC One series have been for several years?

Foley also thought an all-Microsoft device portfolio would attract IT admins who didn't want to mix and match devices. I and several others had to remind her that Microsoft actually provides better support for iOS and Android than it does for Windows phones: better management tools, better applications, and better security. 

The new Microsoft-centered mobile portfolio

Foley's worldview is widely shared at Microsoft-centric IT shops. Ironically, you can have an all-Microsoft portfolio as long as you don't define "portfolio" to mean client devices.

Microsoft has been telegraphing the end of ex-CEO Steve Ballmer's Nokia-based mobile strategy for more than a year. Under current CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft has been instead shifting to mobile management, services, and applications as the center of its mobile portfolio. (To be fair, he's also kept hopes for Windows phones alive.)

Microsoft has many times used the "embrace and extend" strategy to beat out or at least slow successful competitors. That's exactly what Microsoft is doing now, in several areas.

Microsoft-centered management. Microsoft's Intune and System Center have both been retooled to manage iOS and Android, as well as Windows 10 PCs. (Only Macs are excluded.) Thus, IT can continue to use the management tools -- modernized, of course -- it already uses for PCs on those iOS and Android devices almost as if they are mere brands like Lenovo, Dell, and HP rather than alien platforms.

Microsoft has adopted the same API-driven management approach that Apple introduced for iOS and Google later adopted. That sea change means PC management and mobile management no longer need be separate silos. They'll unify, and Microsoft wants to be where they come together in IT.

Microsoft's approach to unified PC and mobile management has scared the leading mobile management vendors such as MobileIron, VMware, and Soti. They have very strong management and security tools for devices, content, and apps, and as a result have squeezed out most of what had been more than 100 competitors in this market.

But Microsoft has put a few management capabilities around Office 365 that it doesn't let those competitors use, to give itself an edge at Microsoft-centered IT shops.

Whether you think of that as dirty pool or taking advantage of its existing strengths, several competitors -- IBM, JAMF, MobileIron, and VMware -- felt threatened enough to create an anti-Microsoft alliance called the AppConfig Community. Such defensive alliances rarely succeed, and they can create more harm by further legitimizing the competitor they're aligned against.

If you're a Microsoft shop -- most IT organizations are -- you can now confidently adopt Microsoft's management tools for non-Microsoft devices. It doesn't matter that Microsoft doesn't support some important capabilities that its competitors do, such as Android for Work. What matters is that Microsoft's suite is good enough for most organizations (few of which have adopted Android for Work, after all), that it leverages their existing Microsoft expertise, and it might provide an advantage in managing and safeguarding data in Office 365.

Beyond client device management, Microsoft has also been steadily making its Active Directory identity and policy management server work with more and more third-party tools. The cloud-based Azure Active Directory pushes in that Microsoft-centric direction.

Microsoft-centered productivity. More than a year ago, Microsoft released a version of Office for iPad that was really good. A quality Android version followed last summer, then a Mac version. Finally, the Windows version and Windows Phone version. (Note the order of release.)

Microsoft pushed Apple out of its historic lead for iOS productivity and revitalized the sagging Mac version of Office. The mobile version of Google Apps have never been very good, and the Web version of Google Apps for the desktop is passable.

As a result, Office is the productivity suite for anyone and everyone, as long as you buy an Office 365 subscription. For IT, that means it can support only one suite (Microsoft's) and ignore or even block Apple iWorks, Google Apps, and the various Android productivity suits, such as Polaris Office. In other words, it's all-Microsoft on the productivity front, or it can easily be.

Yes, Microsoft still has tools like Access and Publisher that are Windows-only, and certain capabilities in Excel, PowerBI, and other tools don't work on Macs, iOS, and/or Android. Windows is still Microsoft's favored platform. But it's clear that Office is now the platform that matters, not Windows.

Microsoft-centered communications. Apple adopted Exchange Active Sync (EAS) protocol years ago for iOS and OS X, so iPhones, iPads, and Macs can play nicely in an Exchange-centered business -- which is most of them.

Microsoft's back-end implementation has been inconsistent and often fails to work properly on clients except for Outlook for Windows -- even Microsoft's Outlook clients for other platforms often fail the compatibility test. The situation gets much worse for Microsoft's collaboration tools, such as SharePoint and Yammer. But it's slowly improving, with OneDrive the first to see some (only some) fruits of Microsoft's years-long effort to make its collaboration and communications clients as good across platforms as Office now is.

Even with all those issues, Exchange is clearly the center of email and calendar communications across Windows, OS X, iOS, and Android -- giving a Microsoft-centric IT department what it wants. Microsoft tells me it'll fix the Exchange back end and open up its APIs so that both Microsoft's and third parties' clients can be equal or at least equal-enough citizens in an Exchange-centered world. Whether they run Outlook or not, who cares? They are still in effect Microsoft clients, though not from Microsoft.

OneDrive is getting there as well, and Microsoft's goal for file storage and access is the same as for Exchange: Power it all from OneDrive/SharePoint on the back end, making Microsoft the indispensable center for whatever clients users happen to have. Oh, and promote Microsoft's technology agenda along the way.

Hardly anyone uses Yammer, so the fact that non-Microsoft tools like Slack and HipChat are better is an acceptable reality for Microsoft shops -- especially because Slack and HipChat can be integrated into Microsoft's cloud-based Azure Active Directory identity management if desired. Microsoft remains the center of gravity, especially for IT. Microsoft-centric admins should love that.

As you can see, the unofficial death of Windows phones doesn't end Microsoft admins' dreams of a single technology platform. It simply shifts it from user devices into IT's systems. Isn't that where an IT admin would want them?

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