Although there are many drivers behind the recent explosion of small form factor computing devices in the typical government enterprise environment – including smartphones, tablets, slate and netbook devices, e-readers, and more – perhaps the single most important and under appreciated driver is Microsoft Exchange-based email.

(Full disclosure: Before joining my current employer, I spent nearly 12 years with Microsoft Corp. where I oversaw the company’s strategic and tactical mobile initiatives across the federal government.)

My Microsoft perspective allowed me to recognize that the company’s ubiquity on the desktop, and in server infrastructure, provided a head start on mobile initiatives and in gauging the “appetite” for mobility across the federal government.

I set out to untether mobile workers by extending critical, line-of-business (LOB) applications that leveraged the current information technology infrastructure. Our message basically came down to: use what you have and make the most out of your Microsoft software investments by extending applications to mobile workers.

We had numerous notable successes extending application functionality out to the so-called edge: enabling supply chain logistics; aiding first responders; assisting in interdiction and inspections efforts; providing watch lists to agents; and giving the government better functionality across the board.

Given that upwards of 94% of all U.S. federal agencies use Microsoft Exchange as their default mail server it seemed mobile email would be a “natural” for Microsoft and Microsoft Federal in particular.

Mobile devices were also used and continue to be used by task workers to automate work processes and improve efficiencies. We were able to help large agencies perform tasks such as bar code scanning and related advanced data capture applications in a mobile manner.

While the overwhelming majority of the work was gratifying, it was equally apparent that the “lower lying fruit” and an area that wasn’t touched as much by Microsoft, was mobile email.

Given that upwards of 94% of all U.S. federal agencies use Microsoft Exchange as their default mail server of choice and the associated Outlook client software on the desktop, it seemed mobile email would be a “natural” for Microsoft and Microsoft Federal in particular.

There are myriad reasons why Microsoft was largely unsuccessful in capturing significant market share in the mobile mail space (that’s a subject of another blog entry to come).

That said, one of the biggest reasons why Microsoft was less successful in this space was the almost ubiquitous presence of Research In Motion‘s BlackBerry device.

I regard the BlackBerry as a game changer, a category creator, a device that found a very lucrative niche in effectively extending enterprise mail (most of which was on Microsoft Exchange Servers in the agencies’ own data centers) out to mostly white collar knowledge workers. Blackberry’s continued success was cemented after the September 11 attacks when – notably – these were the only devices that worked when other connectivity was cut off or severely constrained.

(There are many reasons why BlackBerry devices were effective in the aftermath of 9/11 but for our purposes suffice it to say it is mainly because those devices rode the old Mobitex wireless packet-switched data network that was not affected by the disaster. Other networks were located at the twin towers site and at multiple, down-town New York telecom “hotels” nearby. Note that RIM no longer uses Mobitex and instead relies on GSM and CDMA networks.)

BlackBerry’s dominance in mobile mail was a proxy for dominance in mobile writ large. People became so dependent on their BB devices that many other innovative products and applications were largely ignored for a decade or more.

I’m not here to slam BlackBerry but I do believe that the myopic focus on email and proprietary protocols of the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) retarded the growth of the higher value return on investment mobile applications that many of us foresaw in the late 1990s.

New entrants to the mobile space such as Apple‘s iPhone, using their own IOS operating System in 2007, made clear that the focus would now be on applications other than mail.

Mail, if anything was thought of as a given; something that was baked into the product as a value add. Apple commoditized email in a similar manner to how BlackBerry and others, such as Windows Mobile, commoditized Personal Information Management as an area first made big by Palm.

The reason that mail is now thought of as a given for the enterprise is due to the ubiquitous usage of Exchange within the enterprise and Apple’s astute interest in licensing the Exchange Active Synch (EAS) protocol from Microsoft. (There’s a bit more to the story to this but discretion requires that I will only say Apple was going to get to Exchange connectivity with or without Microsoft’s assistance.)

Later, Google and their Android mobile operating system also made Exchange interoperability a priority. These players wanted to connect to the critical mass of end-users who were or are using the number one mail server in the enterprise – Microsoft Exchange.

Looking back, the integration of Microsoft Exchange’s email platform via EAS with mobile devices – including iPads, tablets, slates, netbooks, laptops and other devices – is perhaps one of the key drivers for the surge in mobile enterprise usage today.

Without a connection to Exchange via EAS, government workers across all agencies would not be able to get their mail and also access powerful applications in their data centers and on the web. (RIM provides access to enterprise mail but does not use EAS.)

While it is true that RIM’s BlackBerry is still a formidable competitor with high levels of security and a STIG (Secure Technical Interoperations Guidelines) compliant mail solution, the company was slower to adapt to line of business trends in the marketplace (as was Microsoft, Nokia, and many other competitors).

Humble Exchange email opened the door for more exciting applications that include command and control, common operational picture, geocasting, advanced mobile GIS (geospatial information systems), rich inspections, MRO (maintenance repair operations) and integration with web and cloud services.

Our next BLOG entry: The federal mobile ecosystem and the role of its multi-faceted players.

Randy Siegel is director, business development, mobile computing for Motorola Solutions‘ Federal Government Division. Siegel also spent 12 years with Microsoft Corp. where he oversaw Microsoft’s mobility strategy and worked with U.S. Federal Government C-level decision makers to improve operations via mobile development and deployment.