With the popularity of mobile platforms from Apple and Google, plus end users' demand for the best technology, Microsoft can no longer expect to be the enterprise vendor of choice.
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Still, Microsoft hopes to persuade enterprise IT to adopt a Windows mobile ecosystem through a "softer, kinder and gentler" approach, industry watchers said.
"Microsoft is on the ropes," said Bob Egan, CEO and chief analyst for Sepharim Group, of Falmouth, Mass. "They were shut out of the early inning. We need a much more appreciative Microsoft toward the customer. We need them to listen more, deliver more and talk less."
The big shift in Microsoft's mindset is that the company will not win the mobile battle by controlling everything, said Chris Hazelton, director of mobile research at 451 Research, based in Boston.
Microsoft's realization that it cannot launch new consumer technology and expect the enterprise to buy into its ecosystem has humbled the company and renewed its attention on commercial customers.
Sumeeth Evans, vice president of information technology for Pedcor Companies, based in Carmel, Ind., noticed guidance is unlike what it was in the past. Microsoft has been "softer" in its approach to enterprises, he said.
For instance, Microsoft extended lifecycle support for Windows Phone from 18 to 36 months to accommodate IT's requirements for supporting these devices within an organization for a longer time. Microsoft will also make the Windows Phone enterprise pack available in the first half of next year.
Microsoft's new mobile enterprise strategy
But change is under way. When Windows 8 and Surface launched last year, Microsoft's technologies were aimed at consumers. Businesses had little to go on. Now, Windows 8.1 includes more enterprise features, such as security and management capabilities. The pending Nokia acquisition has also contributed to Microsoft's refocused efforts on how it approaches its bread-and-butter enterprise market.
Microsoft has also geared its tablets toward businesses rather than just consumers. The company refers to the Surface Pro 2 as a laptop replacement and calls the Surface 2 a tablet for business.
While Microsoft has IT's ear, getting the ear of the business units is key for regaining the mobile enterprise initiative, Hazelton noted.
The gaping divide is due to end-user demand for iOS and Android devices, but not for the Windows 8.1 tablets and Windows Phone devices. The growth of consumerization has hurt Microsoft's chances for deploying mobile technology in companies with entrenched iOS and Android implementations.
Microsoft needs to prove that its mobile technology can enable companies to become more competitive and enhance an employee's experience to be more productive.
"Providing a use case that is novel and improves either the productivity of users as part of a business or eases the way people get their jobs done is the way to succeed in this market now," said Chris Silva, research director for Gartner Inc., based in Stamford, Conn. Silva said this approach has been lacking in Microsoft's mobile strategy, but he expects to see improvement with hardware and software being more unified within the company.
Microsoft's enterprise mobile strategy: The road ahead
To some degree, Microsoft is following Apple Inc. and Google Inc.'s lead: Provide compelling hardware, software, services and support for third-party applications and companies will implement the technology.
A variety of technologies are falling into place that lay the foundation for Microsoft to approach the enterprise with a full mobile strategy. Some IT shops have begun to deploy Windows 8.1 pilots because the OS has enhanced security and management features, said Ted Schadler, vice president at Forrester Research Inc., based in Cambridge, Mass.
In addition, Microsoft's Office 365 subscription service continues to generate solid business, and the pending acquisition of Nokia enables Microsoft to make headway into the smartphone device market. Microsoft is also using its Surface tablet lineup to persuade businesses that need mobile technologies to deploy the platform, citing a familiar comfort level for companies who already standardize on the Windows ecosystem.
In Microsoft's first fiscal quarter for 2014, the company closed the quarter with $401 million in revenue for Surface, with the majority attributed to Surface RT, representing a major turnaround compared with losing $900 million in the fourth fiscal quarter of 2013 for unsold Surface RT inventory.
As enterprise IT mulls over how to implement mobile technologies to transform their organization's business to be more competitive, consideration comes in line for not only the software and its applications, but also the hardware.
"As much as anyone says [mobile is just about] a PC, tablet or phone, we think it's going to be the aggregation of all the three and ease of use between them," said Will Stofega, director of mobile phones at IDC.
For Microsoft, this could be good news as the company attempts to unify the Windows experience across all platforms within the Windows mobile ecosystem.