Microsoft’s Italian subsidiary took the decision at the end of 2003 to equip its 200 salespeople with Motorola smartphones based, unsurprisingly, on Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system.
But unlike many companies, Microsoft’s mobility drive did not stop with these front-line “road warriors”. The success of this pilot led the Milan-based company to give smartphones to all its 600 workers, from secretaries right the way up to the CEO.
“We do not have many people who just sit at their desks all day so we decided to deploy the phones to everyone,” says Marco Comastri, general manager of Microsoft Italia.
The big selling point of smartphones over mobile phones is that they let users work on the move by providing access to corporate data and applications that are traditionally accessible only from a PC.
Even Mr Comastri admits that the reality is somewhat different and that some applications are not well suited to smartphones. For example, trying to read a 24-column spreadsheet on the tiny screen of a smartphone is an exercise in frustration. “But we can design most other applications so that they fit on the screen,” he says.
For example, Microsoft Italia has developed a Windows Mobile application to allow its employees to book their holidays on their smartphone rather than having to do it from their office PC.
This might seem a minor achievement but Mr Comastri makes the point that for salespeople and others who spend a lot of time on the road, it is a big advance on having to go into the office or fire up their laptop at home to do simple tasks such as book a holiday or check e-mail.
Like other companies, Microsoft Italia has found e-mail to be by far the most popular application for the smartphone. In the past, Microsoft Italia’s salespeople checked their e-mail using a laptop and modem, a time-consuming process usually done in the evening.
The company tried giving them Wap (Wireless application protocol) phones. But the Wap-based e-mail service required special software to be installed on the mail server and incompatibilities between different phones and Wap versions created big problems.
Now, these problems have disappeared and the mail server can be accessed anywhere – or anywhere with GPRS coverage – as easily by smartphone as from a PC. For its initial trial, Microsoft used the Motorola MPx200 phone but it has since added Windows Mobile-based smartphones from other manufacturers and claims there are no compatibility issues.
Besides e-mail, the other popular application for the smartphone is Outlook’s calendar function, which allows Microsoft Italia’s employees to check the availability of colleagues and fix meetings. Another popular smartphone application is a directory containing the e-mail addresses of all Microsoft employees.
Mr Comastri acknowledges that enterprises looking to do large-scale roll-outs of mobile devices worry about the extra support burden this puts on the IT department. For example, if a user loses a mobile device, not only does that create big security headaches but the user loses their address book and other personal information stored on the device.
Microsoft Italia believes it has solved this problem by storing all user information on a central server. So, if a user loses a smartphone, the information held on the server can be downloaded to a new device.
Buoyed by its own successful project, Microsoft Italia recently teamed with Telecom Italia Mobile, Italy's largest mobile carrier, in an initiative to promote smartphones and mobile working to other Italian enterprises.