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 create a service organization for enterprise mobility—to make the whole story more real.”

Boston-based bakery chain Au Bon Pain, for example, needed help getting the real profit-and-loss figures for each store into the hands of its traveling area directors. The company had developed its own network-accessible daily report application, but area directors frequently couldn’t get at the latest data because, well—if you’ve ever been to one of the company’s cafes, you know that there just isn’t a spot in the typical Au Bon Pain kitchen big enough to set down a laptop, let alone an Internet connection to plug it into.

Enterprise Mobile worked with the company to create a Windows Mobile version of the report application, select the right mobile phone to run the application, and teach area directors how to use the devices. Enterprise Mobile “not only provided the technical expertise we required, but removed any fear and uncertainty our employees may have had about going mobile,” Ed Mockler, the chain’s senior vice president for information technology, told Enterprise Mobile for its published case study of the Au Bon Pain deployment. Now area directors “can get out earlier in the morning and visit more cafes, even those they weren’t planning on visiting,” Mockler said.

Enterprise Mobile has 65 employees to service its 30-plus customers, mostly Fortune 500 companies. These workers are spread across the Watertown headquarters; a Bellevue, WA, office that liaises with Microsoft; and a Dallas “factory” where workers ready mobile devices for deployment to customer sites. Microsoft has also named Enterprise Mobile as the lead strategic partner available to help its own customers get Mobile Device Manager running on their corporate networks.

I contacted Microsoft to ask how Enterprise Mobile fits into its overall vision for Windows Mobile. Scott Rockfeld, group product manager with the company’s Mobile Communications Business, replied that lRosenthal’s company “helps businesses tap into the enormous potential the Windows Mobile platform delivers….By acting as a single contact for device procurement, custom provisioning, lifecycle maintenance and helpdesk support, Enterprise Mobile extends Microsoft’s commitment to the success of its customers and its strong partner network.”

Enterprise Mobile is privately funded and held; its sole outside investor is—you guessed it—Microsoft, which owns a minority stake, according to Rosenthal.

Before I left Enterprise Mobile—which is located inside one of the converted munitions-factory buildings at the Watertown Arsenal—I asked Rosenthal for his quick rundown of today’s mobile-device market. Unsurprisingly, he’s of the opinion that Windows Mobile devices are the only smart option for businesses looking to help their workers be truly mobile. RIM’s Blackberry, he says, is “interesting, and has a stronger business following…But lately they seem to be trying to make it into a general-purpose consumer device. They got rid of the thumb wheel, which was the best thing about it. They’re trying to make it look sexier—but at the end of the day, they’ve made it less useful.”

Google’s open-source Android phone operating system should also be “interesting,” Rosenthal says, “but if it’s all about advertising-supported services, that’s not compatible with enterprise functions.” And the Apple iPhone? “For one thing, it’s just not a very good phone,” says Rosenthal. “And it’s far from being enterprise-ready. It doesn’t do enterprise e-mail. There is no security. Plenty of our customers think it’s cool—but none of them would ever think about adopting it.”

“For our purposes,” Rosenthal concludes, “Windows Mobile is the only player.” And for Ballmer’s purposes, apparently, Rosenthal was the only player. The next 12 months—as Mobile Device Manager is rolled out, more manufacturers and carriers come out with phones that are compatible with the system, and more companies get a chance to evaluate the technology—may show whether Ballmer made the right call.

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.