Is Office application support a must for smartphone users?

Microsoft's mobile enterprise activities have been in the spotlight during the last few weeks, with the company inking an alliance with Nokia to address this market, and reports that the company is planning to support mobile browser access to its web-based Office applications. But the news raises some important questions with regard to how enterprise users interact with their devices, and what smartphones are used for in the real-world.

Starting with the mobile browser access to web applications rumours first, online publication Ars Technica reported that Microsoft had confirmed this is planned, but the software giant had stated "we are still in early phases of development and will share additional details around specific browsers and functionality at a later date". Microsoft has already said that it is looking to add cloud versions of Office titles to its portfolio, alongside native software versions.

Moving on to the Nokia partnership, Microsoft and the number-one global handset vendor are to develop a native version of the Office Mobile software for smartphones powered by the Symbian OS platform, with Office Mobile previously being the preserve of smartphones based on Microsoft's own Windows Mobile platform. While this will give enterprises choice of a wider range of smartphones with Office Mobile support, a range of third party office software has been available for Symbian OS for some time which does a very similar job.

The big question is whether enterprise users actually want Office functionality on smartphones. While these devices provide users with excellent communications capabilities in an attractive and portable form factor, they also have a number of shortcomings: the input method is limited, whether via touch screen or keypad; the display size is small, limiting the amount of usable information displayed on the screen; and computing power is constrained by issues including processor speed, battery power and available memory. This limits their usability for document editing and viewing.

It is worth noting that the generally accepted leader in the enterprise mobility market, Research In Motion, the company behind BlackBerry, has maintained its core focus on messaging, whether email or enterprise-class IM, and personal information management (contact and calendar synchronisation), rather than document editing.

For mobile users who require access to document editing features in a portable form factor, a netbook device seems to offer a much better compromise; although they are significantly bigger, this enables them to include usable keyboards and larger screens, making them more suitable for document manipulation. Smartphones seem best suited to communications roles, centred around their positioning as phones rather than computers.

Industry observer Michael Mace, who has previously held executive positions at Palm and Apple, noted "putting Microsoft Office on a smartphone is like putting wings on a giraffe -- it may get you some attention, but it's not very practical".

Perhaps the more interesting detail of the Microsoft and Nokia partnership is the fact that the partners will also include work on "business communications, collaboration and device management software", opening the potential for a range of Microsoft's enterprise products to be extended to users of Nokia devices. This offers the potential to improve enterprise collaboration, through access to internet and extranet portals built on SharePoint Server, and improve communication through Office Communicator Mobile. With device management also on the agenda, there is a real opportunity for enterprises to seamlessly create a best-of-breed solution using Microsoft's enterprise computing products, devices powered by Windows Mobile, and Nokia's Symbian OS smartphones.

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