To Get Windows Mobile into Enterprises, Microsoft Turns to Boston Software Veteran

2/21/08Follow @wroush

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is the kind of guy who can start a company with a single phone call. And when Ballmer called Mort Rosenthal in early 2007, he knew exactly what he wanted: a new company that would help Microsoft’s biggest customers in industries like financial services, health care, and professional services start seeing Windows Mobile devices as real business tools, not just fancy cell phones for executives. Rosenthal accepted the challenge, and Enterprise Mobile was born.

“The mobile world was designed for consumers, not enterprises,” explains Rosenthal, now the Watertown, MA, company’s CEO. And if there’s anybody who should know how to make new software palatable for business users, it’s him. Rosenthal founded Corporate Software in 1982 and basically invented the idea of reselling software, along with the services and support that businesses needed but software makers themselves weren’t always willing or able to provide. He led the company to nearly $1 billion in sales by 1995, when it merged with the software division of publishing giant R.R. Donnelly. And within two years after that, the merged organization, Stream International, had, under Rosenthal’s continued leadership, hit $2 billion in revenues.

Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) sees the business applications of Windows Mobile devices as another one of those multi-billion-dollar opportunities. The applications are definitely there: cell phones and PDAs equipped with the Windows Mobile 6 operating system can run some hefty software the days, such as spreadsheets, CRM applications, parts-catalog databases, and business-intelligence dashboards. But corporations haven’t warmed up to Window Mobile devices as fast as they have to competing devices such as the Blackberry line from Canada’s Research In Motion.

Mort Rosenthal, founder and CEO of Enterprise MobileThe problem is partly that the traditional distributors of mobile phones—cellular carriers like Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint—are tightly focused on the consumer market and haven’t provided features or services tailored to businesses. And it’s partly that Windows phones can be a nightmare for corporate IT departments to deploy and control. They are nearly as powerful as laptops, in some cases, and can hold lots of sensitive company data—but it’s hard to load them up with the latest software upgrades, and they’re easily misconfigured or lost. (Vaultus, another local mobile-services startup I happened to cover last week, helps deal with that last problem.)

Ballmer already had a team working on a software fix for the Windows Mobile challenges—an administrative tool called Mobile Device Manager that Microsoft plans to roll out in the second quarter of this year. Mobile Device Manager, unveiled last October, will allow system administrators to transmit software upgrades, set access policies across a company’s entire network of mobile devices, and the like, all over the air, just as they would with a the laptop and desktop PCs connected to a company’s private network. But that still leaves the deployment and support problems unsolved: companies buying thousands of Window Mobile devices for their area managers or field technicians don’t really want to have to load them one by one with the proper software, or set them up for access to the corporate network, or deal with lost devices, replacements, and repairs.

Hence Ballmer’s call to Rosenthal. “Windows Mobile is starting to be compelling for enterprises, but was no good distribution mechanism for getting it into corporations,” Rosenthal told me when I visited the company last week. “Cellular operators, for the most part, take value away from their phones, as enterprise devices. The job Steve gave us was to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.windowsmobileconfiguration.com Windows Mobile

    I agree with the you partially about windows mobile devices not as much faster as other competitors like blackberry etc.

  • http://ampersanddot.com/blog Zach

    As a self-proclaimed windows mobile junkie (both for consumer and enterprise functionality), I’m pretty excited to see what enterprise mobile brings to the market.

    One of the fundamental flaw in WinMo, that Wade brings up, is indeed that they are highly powerful. This is a double edged sword in that they are fully capable of being secure, remotely controlled devices… just as much as they are able to be cracked into insecure remotely controlled devices.

    I hope that EM can bring WinMo beyond this issue and give ISOs a better peace of mind.

    Incidentally, I was once told by an IT support member that if I wanted company email I needed a blackberry- I was told that Windows Mobile “would not work”. But I’m guessing this was just to deter users because WinMo couldn’t be remotely controlled by internal IT… so instead I just entered in the publicly shared webmail info and had full active sync running anyway… If I can crack it that easily, I guess others can too.

  • http://www.onstott.com Neil Greco

    A familiar face on the local scene at an inflection point for the mobile world. None better than Mort to develop this business.

    Having been in the industry for twenty-odd years and utilized Stream as a resource, it’s fascinating to see applications reach newly developed platforms yet many of the challenges are re-occurring. Not only the distribution channel but the inherent asset management challenges many F500 companies will face – so on that note I agree with Zach.

    Say what you will about Microsoft but they are a huge market enabler and will do it again with Windows Mobile. The difference relative to the laptop era is market adoption rates are radically faster and so are development timeframes.