Why Windows 10 Mobile matters for business

Microsoft’s first Windows 10 phones are shipping, even though Windows 10 isn’t quite finished. These flagship devices may be priced too high for general business use, but they have some intriguing new features that may have significant business advantages.

Windows 10 Mobile Build 10136
Credit: Mark Hachman

The first market that Microsoft is targeting with its new Lumia 950 and 950 XL flagship phones is the neglected enthusiast audience. But they’re just one of the two markets Microsoft CMO Chris Capossela recently suggested (at the Citi Global Technology conference) that Microsoft can “serve incredibly well.” The other is business. “We know business customers want a very, very secure phone that's incredibly good at calendar management, at email, at productivity, and Skype for Business, et cetera,” Capossela says. But that might be underselling the business potential of Windows 10 Mobile.

Many of the Windows 10 features match what other smartphone platforms provide, from mobile device management (MDM )and encrypted containers for enterprise apps and documents, to a business app store that covers free and org-licensed custom apps (although not yet paid-for apps), to USB On The Go for connecting peripherals.

Microsoft is building iris recognition into its new Lumia handsets rather than the fingerprint scanners of iPhone and Android handsets (several of which have turned out to store fingerprints insecurely). That makes for convenient security; you just look at the phone screen as usual, and it unlocks. The Windows Hello system can do more than unlock the phone. It can also sign you in to Outlook.com, OneDrive, correctly configured versions of Active Directory – and Azure Active Directory, which in turn gives you single sign on for any cloud services and on-premises Web apps your business is managing through Azure AD. (Azure AD currently supports over 2,500 services for SSO.)

This is still two-factor authentication. The device itself (which is a known and managed device) is one factor and the biometric credential is the other factor. But it’s significantly more convenient for users than traditional 2FA systems, or even the increasingly popular use of a phone to authenticate. If you can log in to a business service, on your phone or on a PC you’re using your phone to sign in to, just by looking at your phone, you don’t have to type in a security code, or wait for an authentication message to turn up.

[Related: Windows 10 Mobile gets an end-of-life date, surrounded by mystery]

Windows 10 Mobile also takes a more pro-active approach to bringing you business information. Microsoft’s intelligent assistant, Cortana, goes beyond the voice search and personal organization that Siri also offers, with integration into business systems like Office 365 and Dynamics CRM. That means you’ll be able to tell Cortana to remind you to offer a discount or ask about a recent order next time you talk to a customer who’s in your Dynamics system, even if they’re not in your own address book; that will have Cortana popping up with the reminder when you phone, text, email or visit their office.

There are lots of ways to connect mobile apps to your company data. What’s so interesting about Cortana is the pro-active reminders. If you have an upcoming meeting, Cortana will track any travel you have booked and warn you when you need to leave to arrive on time, based on traffic or transit schedules. But she also collates documents you’ve shared with the people you’re meeting, details of other people you’re connected to at their company (using the Office Graph), and other relevant information that might make your meeting more useful.

Cortana is also a good interface for exploring data using natural questions (like ‘what was the best-selling product last week?’). Microsoft has shown how that would work with Power BI – which has its own natural language query tool where you can type in exactly those kinds of questions and get a table or a graph of the information) – and you can use the Cortana Analytics Suite to integrate multiple data repositories into a system that Cortana can mine for trends and suggestions.

Because Cortana is already syncing information between your devices through the notebook of interests and connections, this is also the way Microsoft offers unified messaging between PCs and phones in Windows 10. That covers more than the Skype integration that lets you make voice and video calls from the same dialler; it means you’ll be able to see and reply to text messages on your phone, from your PC.

Universal but not everywhere

For iOS, you can create an app that runs on iPhone and iPad, but you’ll have to make a different app for Mac and PC users. If you’re building your own apps, Windows 10 Mobile has the advantage that the same app will run on a Windows 10 desktop, laptop, tablet and phone. The Universal Windows Platform replaces both “modern” Windows 8 apps built with WinRT and the Windows Phone 8 apps built with Silverlight, which developers could combine into a single project with a development platform where the same code runs on all devices, but the user sees an interface designed for their screen size. (Existing Windows Phone apps will run on Windows 10 Mobile, but not on PCs.)

If you want to offer your users a consistent app, having them on Windows 10 for PCs and phones could cut your development time. For cloud storage service Box, designing a single app that would run on both PCs and phones was an attractive alternative to maintaining two codebases and two interfaces.

Virgin Atlantic was looking for a way to get business travellers excited about the idea of flying in their Upper Class cabin, in a way “that didn’t require the same scale investments as our competitors” explains Reuben Arnold, Virgin’s senior vice president for Marketing and Customer Experience. They wanted to build a system they could use at tradeshows or retail locations, to let people see and feel what’s different about travelling on the airline.

Doing that on Windows 10 let them create IDA, an Interactive Digital Adventure that potential customers can experience on a virtual reality headset that’s a Windows 10 phone tucked into a VR case, connected to a Windows PC so the Virgin Atlantic staff can track how well it’s going. At strategic points of the tour through the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse and the Upper Class cabin, they even wave essential oils under your nose to make the virtual gin and tonic and the relaxing massage more realistic, and you can wear a Microsoft Band that monitors your heart rate, so they can see how engaging you’re finding the adventure. There’s a tablet version to show to people who don’t want to put the headset on. And when it’s done, they can give you a copy of the app to take home that you can run on your own PC.

But some companies view the term universal as something of a misnomer; Slack, for instance, is working on its Windows Phone 8 app (which will run on Windows 10 Mobile but not on Windows 10 PCs) but isn’t currently planning to create a UWP app because it wouldn’t run on Windows 7. Unless you only need to build an app for Windows 10 users, you will need to consider how many Windows 7 systems you need to support in your business as well. In the longer term, though, universal apps are compelling – and they have a hidden advantage.

Can a phone be a PC?

The Lumia 950 and 950 XL as well as Acer’s upcoming Jade Primo handset support a new feature called Continuum, which goes beyond being able to using your phone to drive a screen. With Continuum, you can use Miracast to connect wirelessly to a screen and Bluetooth to connect to a keyboard and mouse, or drop your phone into a USB dock, and what you see isn’t a phone screen blown up to the size of the display. Instead, you get the Windows 10 PC version of the interface for universal apps. So instead of a phone view of Word Mobile, you get the same interface that Word Mobile would have if you ran it on a laptop.

[Related: Microsoft's flagship Lumia 950 and 950XL will lead Windows 10 Mobile with premium specs]

You can put two applications side by side to compare or copy information. You don’t get a full PC desktop, and initially you can’t pin applications to the taskbar; this is much more like the tablet mode in Windows 10. But it does mean you can plug a keyboard and screen into a phone and work very much as if you were using a PC.

Standard desktop apps won’t run on the phone, although vice president for the Windows developer platform Kevin Gallo suggested at the recent Connect 15 event that Microsoft is looking into options to support that; “we really do want that full desktop experience with some of those 32-bit applications lighting up there”.

Although Microsoft has developer tools (codenamed Project Centennial) to converting desktop apps to Windows 10 apps, they still only run on a PC; the tool doesn’t produce true universal apps. Microsoft’s new PowerApps service is an alternative for mobilizing the Excel and SharePoint workflows that underlie a lot of line of business apps into mobile apps. But the obvious way to bring desktop aps to the phone is with the Remote Desktop app, or using Microsoft’s RemoteApp service for streaming desktop apps that run on Microsoft’s Azure cloud, and both of those will work today.

Getting the full size interface for universal apps is handy for getting some work done at home unexpectedly and it’s appealing for business travellers, especially if they currently carry a locked-down laptop for work and a personal laptop or tablet for fun. But Nick McQuire, vice president at mobile analysts CCS Insight believes there’s a bigger opportunity for Continuum in business.

“Thin client for mobile has never really been solved,” he told CIO.com. “Maybe Continuum is the opportunity for doing this. It can tap into your Windows environment, because you can run Remote Desktop through Continuum, because it has an Ethernet connection when you plug into the dock.”

He believes enterprises will be interested in the potential of Continuum to bridge their investments in thin client to the mobile space. “A lot of people still have a lot of Citrix and they struggle around supporting mobility; thin client on mobile devices is a horrible experience and what typically happens is people use their thin client solution on mobile devices in a very limited way.

No-one has taken thin client beyond the iPad and there’s a question of whether that experience is good anyway. The attraction here is you can virtualize your desktop or certainly your apps and maintain that infrastructure and strategy, but extend the reach of that out into a phone environment. Enterprises have a lot of legacy apps they have to figure out what to do with, and it’s not easy to port those onto a phone. Now you have an environment where you can bring them to a phone, and you don’t have to rewrite them or push users into a poor experience.”

A big advantage of Continuum is that Windows handsets will work with existing accessories you already have in the business. That was a requirement that showed up in CCS Insight’s last survey of enterprises. “For corporate purchased phones, the ability to work with existing hardware like screens and projectors and printers is in the top three now, and that was never really a major requirement before,” McQuire says.

The incompatibility of iOS devices with existing business hardware and the need to buy pricey new cables and connectors he claims is “increasingly a source of frustration; Apple gear doesn’t talk to anything in the enterprise.” USB ports mean Android devices should work with existing accessories, but he notes that this is often hard to set up. “People say ‘I spend so much time trying to get a tablet to work with a projector that I’ll just use my laptop’ and it’s the same with printing.”

The main drawback McQuire sees is that Continuum is currently only available on flagship Windows 10 Mobile handsets, not the Lumia 550 phone Microsoft will launch as its business handset for Windows 10. To get Continuum, you have to buy a phone that’s closer in price to an iPhone than a budget Android model.

“Continuum looks really attractive if you can get it into the mid-range devices, and if you can package it up correctly with a dock. If you can get this stuff to work with everything at the right price point, the discussion becomes about security and data control,” he predicts – and those are areas where enterprises are comfortable with Microsoft’s solutions.

Continuum is exciting but unproven technology. If it works well, it’s a compelling argument for businesses to look seriously at Windows 10 Mobile, but to succeed in business the phones will need to have the complete package – security, management and a strong app platform – and they’ll have to have the right price tag.

This story, "Why Windows 10 Mobile matters for business" was originally published by CIO.

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