Microsoft aims Windows Phone at enterprises with longer support

Kicks BlackBerry when the Canadian company's down, says one analyst

Microsoft has doubled the support lifespan of Windows Phone 8 from 18 to 36 months and promised to release an enterprise-oriented "feature pack" for the mobile operating system in the first half of 2014.

The company characterized both moves as attempts to woo businesses to Windows Phone. "[These give] business customers the confidence to invest in Windows Phone today, with the knowledge that their investments are secure, and the platform is evolving to be an even better choice for business," said Tony Mestres, the executive who leads partner and channel marketing for the mobile OS, in a blog post.

"This is like putting salt on the wound on BlackBerry," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Gartner. "There is an opportunity there for Microsoft, both with BYOD [bring your own device] and IT, which is still deploying [company-owned] devices to employees."

Milanesi was referring to BlackBerry's shaky financials and the lackluster reception of the new BlackBerry 10 smartphone, whose sales have disappointed Wall Street.

BlackBerry once ruled the smartphone market, and its remaining customers are predominantly business workers. Microsoft clearly wants to be its replacement in the enterprise, said Milanesi.

Incremental updates will be issued to Windows Phone 8, said Mestres, who did not detail a timeline or reveal the number of updates customers can expect during the now-extended support span.

But as before, those updates -- and the feature pack Mestres promised -- will be at the mercy of mobile carriers and/or handset makers: Microsoft does not control the smartphone update and upgrade processes, as it does for Windows on desktop and notebook computers, or on tablets.

"The mobile operator or phone manufacturer may control the distribution of these incremental updates and update availability may also vary by country, region, and device hardware capabilities," wrote Mestres.

"It's never good when the carrier controls updates," said Wes Miller of Directions on Microsoft. "But Microsoft doesn't have the strong hand that Apple had originally with AT&T, when it played that card."

Milanesi was more optimistic than Miller that most users would receive the incremental updates and next year's feature pack. "This problem [of carriers and OEMs not upgrading the OS] isn't as true for Microsoft as it is for Android," Milanesi said. "For the most part, the [Windows Phone] upgrades are going out, something you can't say for Android. And with most Windows Phones being sold by Nokia, I can't imagine Nokia not upgrading."

The 2014 feature pack will add some long-awaited enhancements to Windows Phone, including app-aware, auto-triggered VPN (virtual private network) and more granular management controls that IT can use to lock down the phone and set up app installation white- and blacklists.

Miller saw the feature pack as the Windows Phone side of Windows 8.1, aka "Blue," the free upgrade scheduled to reach Windows 8 PC and tablet owners this fall.

"It echoes a lot of the features in Windows 8.1," said Miller of the pack. "In Windows 8.1, so many of the new features are about enterprise enablement, and the reality is that Microsoft is trying to get to parity between the platforms."

Whether it gives Windows Phone a better shot at gaining ground on Android and iOS is another matter. According to the latest statistics from metrics company comScore, Microsoft's mobile OS powered 3% of the U.S. smartphones during the three-month period, March through May.

"This only gives them a better chance at replacing BlackBerry and others in the enterprise," Miller said. "This lifts the platform to where we would have expected it the first time around."

This article, Microsoft aims Windows Phone at enterprises with longer support, 'Blue'-style upgrade, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Read more about windows phone in Computerworld's Windows Phone Topic Center.

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Gregg Keizer

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