Here's where Microsoft is going with mobile

Getting its apps onto rival platforms was just the start; now that companies have to manage them, Microsoft hopes to help

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At first glance, Microsoft's mobile strategy seems disjointed.

Windows 10 has evolved to support PCs, tablets, and hybrid devices -- including those by third-party OEMs as well as Microsoft's own Surface Pro and Surface Book. And despite a miniscule overall market share, the company continues to invest in both the OS and hardware development of Windows Phone, with some models now able to function as ultra-portable PCs.

At the same time, after years of shunning rival platforms, Microsoft has aggressively moved to get its software onto iOS and Android devices. The move started in earnest a little under two years ago with the release of core Office apps (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) for the iPad and has expanded to include a range of apps like Outlook, One Note and Office Lens. The most recent addition, a Microsoft "app store" app for Android that is essentially a catalog of its Android apps, may be the most puzzling move. But it make also be the most significant.

Microsoft's move toward competing mobile platforms represents a serious shift from just a few years ago. When Windows Phone launched, it offered the only version of Office for smartphones. Then the company dragged its heels, waiting so long to make Office available for other platforms that it allowed a range of alternatives to show up. Even its initial foray into Office on iOS -- a very anemic iPhone app -- seemed to telegraph a message: If you wanted a truly functional mobile verison of Office, you'd have to buy into Windows Phone (and later Windows 8).

Then, CEO Steve Ballmer stepped down, making way for successor Satya Nadella and "mobile first, cloud first" vision. That was the turning point in Microsoft's approach to mobile. Nadella's aim of getting Office onto every device possible made sense for one very good reason - it was becoming clear that if Microsoft didn't do so, Office was in real danger of being replaced in most businesses.

A strategy bigger than Office

Ensuring that Office and Office 365 had a future was critical for Microsoft. The company's ability to dominate every aspect of enterprise computing had been undermined by the success of iOS, the growing IT acceptance of Android, new platforms like Chrome OS, and the move of technology decision-making beyond the IT department thanks to the BYOD movement. That realization, and Nadella's rise, pushed Microsoft to focus on how best to maintain, perhaps even expand, its relevance in the office.

That is certainly one play the company is making with mobile, but it isn't the only one. In many ways, this is likely just part of the company's overall strategy when it comes to enterprise computing.

Microsoft and EMM

The other part of the puzzle revolves around Microsoft's plans for enterprise mobility management (EMM).

EMM solutions allow companies to manage and secure mobile devices, apps, services and data. Initially, these products and services focused on securing devices themselves by disabling features, requiring passcodes and locking or wiping lost or compromised devices. As mobile platforms have evolved, the ability to manage and secure apps and content - preventing information from being shared between work and personal apps, disabling copy/paste and securely separating work and personal data -- has augmented mobile management capabilities. Today, IT departments have access to a robust set of security and management controls that meet a range of granular needs.

Most of the controls that EMM vendors allow IT to implement come directly from the makers of mobile platforms -- essentially, Apple and Google, though some manufacturers like Samsung offer their own added security options. Most EMM vendors offer a similar set of core capabilities. Through partnerships with software vendors or using their own on-device software, they can expand management capabilities to some extent. But the core capabilities still come from the OS itself.

Microsoft has a unique place in the EMM landscape with its solution, Intune. It not only lets IT departments manage Windows devices, but is positioned as an EMM solution for iOS and Android devices. That makes it a competitor to major EMM vendors like AirWatch by VMWare, Citrix, Good and MobileIron.

In addition to Intune itself, Microsoft offers its Enterprise Mobility Suite (EMS), which packages Intune with a range of other services, including Advanced Azure Active Directory, for integrating single sign-on for the cloud and Azure Rights Management for securing enterprise content across devices. Although that gives Microsoft a leg up, other EMM vendors offer similar functionality on their own or through partnerships.

In the two years since Microsoft introduced EMS, the company has aggressively developed it in tandme with its push to grow its mobile presence on other platforms. The result is that Intune and EMS are now viable options for many companies, though more-established EMM vendors retain loyalty due to factors like ancillary features, support services, and bundles that include EMM functionality along with other enterprise IT solutions. (Citirix and VMWare are good examples here.) On its own, Intune does offer one notable advantage: a more streamlined set of administrative tools that can extend across devices - aka a "single pane of glass" - and that integrate well with System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM).

Office and Intune

Office and Intune/EMS may seem like completely different branches of Microsoft, but they are closely linked.

Microsoft has created its own set of Intune Mobile Application Management (MAM) policies to allow administrators to alter or restrict the funcationality of supported apps.

These policies can be applied to apps themselves rather than to devices. Although some of these policies rely on the EMM capabilties built into the OS, Microsoft can -- and with Outlook and its conditional access functions, to some extent has -- effectively create policies that are app- or Office 365-specific.

The potential here is for Microsoft to significantly extend the management capabilities for its own apps outside the frameworks built into the mobile OSes on which those apps run. It isn't hard to see Microsoft using this as a competitve advantage by building controls into key business apps that only its solutions can manage.

So far, Microsoft seems to pitching EMS as a competitor to other EMM vendors and as a complementary solution. If it does further develop controls in its apps that only its offering can manage, it could put itself in an interesting position, effectively telling companies: You can rely on other EMM vednors for a range of mobile management features, while including Intune/EMS into your management stack - alongside Intune and SCCM for PC management.

Creating a mobile platform on top of other platforms

What's notable about Microsoft's approach is that it's essentially creating its own enterprise mobile platform atop the platforms of its competitors. By creating a solid set of apps across iOS, Android and Windows and potentially offering a single solution for managing them -- regardless of the devices they're on or other solutions used for management -- Microsoft is creating a level field for companies and IT departments. It's an approach that could effectively address the fragmentation of multiple platforms (and even multiple versions of a single platform like Android) in a given environment.

Tying everything into a single set of tools from a single vendor simplifies things even further for IT and technology buyers. That's not to say that companies should rely solely on Microsoft's offerings; It may be that some of the additional features, usability, services, bundles or third-party integrations from other EMM vendors represent a better option. But it makes Microsoft a player.

Dominance, relevance, or something in between?

What's Microsoft's end goal? There's yet no clear answer. But it does ensure that the company remains highly relevant as enterprise computing moves away from the PC towards a multi-platform mobile reality. Keeping Office a major part of the equation will be crucial for Microsoft, even if it doesn't own the individual platforms. And other management tools are also part of that equation.

Clearly, Microsoft could eventually use this approach to exert more leverage in the enterprise mobility market. If it continues to expand the functionality of Office on mobile in a way that requires its tools for management, it would gain significant leverage in the EMM market.

There are no guarantees, however. Microsoft will need to rely on the mobile platforms on which Office runs. If it pushes too far, particularly running up against developer guidelines, Apple and Google could push back and even go so far as to refuse to allow future versions of Office apps into the App Store or Google Play. Of the two, Apple is more likely to impose limits if Microsoft begins to significantly circumvent its iOS management framework. That would pose a major challenge, given that iOS currently dominates in enterprise mobility. Other EMM vendors, particularly those that offer complete enterprise IT stacks in addition to mobile management, could also counterbalance Microsoft's influence.

A less monopolistic possibility is that Microsoft is simply ensuring it has a voice in determining the future of mobility, particularly in the enterprise. The company came close to losing that opportunity with the delayed release of Windows Phone (along with its initial lack of any EMM functionality or integration with key enterprise systems, including Exchange), the backlash over Windows 8 and the decision to withhold Office from its rivals for so long.

Having Apple and Google own both the consumer and enterprise segments of the mobile market at a time of falling PC sales poses an existential quandary for Microsoft. Making sure that it retains a role in setting the technology agenda, particularly in business, is as important as having its products remain in use. And that's just where Microsoft appears to be headed.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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