Smartphone battle brewing in the enterprise market

The consumer smartphone market gets the headlines and the vendor marketing effort, as companies such as Apple, Google and Research in Motion battle for supremacy. Less high profile is the enterprise market, but that may be about to change.

For most smartphone vendors the enterprise space is somewhat of an afterthought. For Apple Corp. (NASDAQ: AAPL), that’s a deliberate strategy. They’ve offered some Microsoft Exchange support but their strategy is to sell to consumers, period, and maybe they’ll force IT to support their iPhones. Google‘s (NASDAQ: GOOG) Android OS has an active developer community, but it’s not taking the lead on developing enterprise-class support apps and handset makers aren’t marketing to business.

(Could Apple actually be the best-kept enterprise secret? Learn about the enterprise opportunity Apple doesn’t want you to know about.)

By and large, Research in Motion (TSE: RIM) has had the enterprise market to itself with the BlackBerry. The BlackBerry has its roots as an enterprise product that came into the consumer-space later, and was designed with enterprise-class security and support in mind. While IT may support different smartphones that consumers buy on their own and bring in, when it’s an IT-buying decision RIM has had a leg-up. That may soon be changing though, as several vendors have at least the potential to try to upset that RIM advantage.

The first, and most obvious, is Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT). The vendor is a natural fit to be a dominant player in the enterprise smartphone space, if only because they’re already a dominant player in the rest of the enterprise. What could be easier to plug into your Microsoft back-end then a smartphone running a Microsoft OS?

It’s a great theory. It hasn’t been a great reality to date though because Windows Mobile OS has, well, been a very unappealing OS that most IT departments were unwilling to force it on their users. By all reports Windows Phone 7 is a quantum leap forward in user experience and usability. If this is true, Microsoft may finally have chance to capitalize on its enterprise omnipresence with a strong enterprise mobility play, coupled with the right handset/s.

The second new contender is Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ), thanks to its acquisition this spring of Palm and, most important Palm’s webOS. The new Palm OS has gotten very positive reviews, and it (and the Palm Pre 2) could be the vehicle to allow HP to dominate the enterprise.

An enterprise smartphone play would fit in with what HP wants to make its competitive differentiator: being able to offer every key piece of the IT chain, from data centre to end-point and everything in between. Like Microsoft, HP is already a dominant, knowledgeable enterprise player. An enterprise smartphone could be a key piece of that complete offering, offering IT a compellingly integrated solution.

While both Microsoft and HP have the pieces to make an appealing enterprise-led smartphone play, the question is, will they? Microsoft’s early focus with Windows Phone 7 seems to be consumer retail. And I heard recently that HP has moved its smartphone/mobility business from its commercial to its consumer business unit; a telling signal of its planned focus.

Even if the vendors are dazzled by the bright lights of the consumer play, the channel should stay focused. It’s not as sexy, but there is a lot of money to be made on the enterprise side and if HP and Microsoft won’t lead with an enterprise smartphone play, the channel should.

Follow Jeff Jedras: @JeffJedrasCDN.

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
A veteran technology and business journalist, Jeff Jedras began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the booming (and later busting) Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal, as well as everything from municipal politics to real estate. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada. He would go on to cover the channel as an assistant editor with CDN. His writing has appeared in the Vancouver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen and a wide range of industry trade publications.

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