With an elegant interface, fast performance and a big marketing budget, Windows Phone 7 is perhaps the surprise package in the smartphone wars this year. A month after its release, and most commentators agree Microsoft has done a great job with the software and, provided app developers and smartphone makers continue to fulfil their part of the bargain, Windows Phone 7 could be a realistic alternative to the iPhone and handsets based on Android.
Placing a big emphasis on the consumer-focused features of Windows Phone 7 is a wise decision by Microsoft. Even in a business environment, end users are now the decision makers when it comes to smartphone purchases. CIOs and IT buyers have a harder time determining which handsets the workforce uses, given that people increasingly have their own personal smartphone and want to use it for work email. Despite the variety of operating systems, provided it works with Exchange ActiveSync, most IT departments will support it.
But should your business actively pursue Windows Phone 7 as the preferred option when the next round of smartphone upgrades comes around? Microsoft claims the benefits of the platform go further than snazzy consumer-focused features such as integration with Xbox Live, and a closer look at some of the services reveals some impressive business credentials.
The USP currently being touted by Microsoft's advertising campaign is that Windows Phone 7 benefits from a more intelligent design than the competition, helping users get more things done faster with a fresh interface that organises tasks and apps in a more logical and accessible way.
The People Hub, for instance, uses Live tiles to keep your contacts’ activities right in front of you, while bringing updates from Facebook and LinkedIn (although not Twitter) together so you don’t have to visit separate applications for those services.
All of which means you may spend less time navigating your smartphone, and more time using it. The message is "get in, and out, and back to life", and during office hours that presumably translates to "back to work".
Windows Phone 7 Office Hub
Whether you’ll be able to improve employees' productivity using Windows Phone 7's Live tiles is debatable, but one area where Microsoft can claim to have bragging rights over the iPhone, Android and BlackBerry is with impressive Microsoft Office integration. Where competing platforms require you to purchase third-party applications that provide similar, but not quite as polished, performance, Windows Phone 7 provides unparalleled integration with office productivity applications right out of the box.
Programs in the Microsoft Office Hub do a great job of displaying documents on the small screen, while editing them is straightforward. In Word you can make basic text formatting changes such as bold, italics and underline, while both Word and Excel allow you to create documents on the handset itself.
In PowerPoint, you're limited to viewing files that have been created elsewhere but Windows Phone 7's version of the presentation program is nonetheless impressive, with animations displayed just as they are on a full-sized PC. While some of the more complicated and extravagant transitions created in Office 2010 are off limits, simple fades between slides work a treat.
Outlook is also well presented. The interface is clean with a menu at the top allowing you to swipe between all, unread, flagged and urgent messages. A wide-array of account-types - including the standard POP3/IMAP – is supported too.
The Calendar interface is straightforward, displaying 'day' and 'agenda' views side-by-side so you can easily switch between the two. Windows Phone 7 also displays a single colour-coded view of multiple calendars, which is a useful feature if you've set up both a social and work calendar. If you have an upcoming appointment, the Calendar app will push that info to the Calendar tile as well as the Lock screen so you have no excuse for forgetting meetings.
Windows Phone 7 on-device encryption
But while impressive Office integration may be enough to persuade some business users to make the switch to Windows Phone 7, there remains a sizeable number of large firms that won't even contemplate Microsoft’s new smartphone platform in its current incarnation.
As Infoworld reports, Windows Phone 7 does not currently support on-device encryption and so employees at businesses who have implemented security policies to block unprotected handsets won't be able to sync their email.
On-device encryption was supported on Microsoft’s previous smartphone OS – Windows Mobile – and is present on the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4 and the iPad. While Google Android 2.2 doesn’t include on-device encryption, there are workarounds, such as NitroDesk's TouchDown app for Android that do.
Many companies don't have a comprehensive security plan for smartphones, and so handset encryption won't be a problem for every firm. But failing to support the feature at launch could limit widespread adoption in larger enterprises. Microsoft tells us that the lack of on-device encryption is one of a number of areas on which the company has received feedback, and hopes to address in a future release.
Still, Windows Phone 7 has succeeded in making Microsoft cool again in the smartphone market. The attractive user interface and Office integration will appeal to many business users, and IT managers are likely to be asked to support handsets based on the OS if employees are allowed to connect their own handsets to the corporate network. Unless your business insists on on-device encryption, Windows Phone 7 is likely to be the next platform your company will need to support.