Since the iPhone’s much-heralded debut in the summer of 2007, Apple has pitched the wildly popular product squarely at consumers. But the enthusiasm of some early users has put what some see as the handwriting on the wall: With a few tweaks-some major-the iPhone could be a very serious contender for corporate personal device of choice.
Such a scenario gained credibility in late 2007 when software giant SAP announced it would port the client software for its CRM (customer relationship management) application to the iPhone, simply because its own sales staff was clamoring for it.
“When it first came out, we got one to test,” said Rob Israel, CIO of John C. Lincoln Health Network, who was not alone among IT pros in his curiosity about the device. However, lackluster e-mail and security features are causing him to keep the iPhone at arm’s length.
“I’m concerned about its ability to support push technology as well as pull [for e-mail], and wiping it remotely [for security],” said Israel.
Even so, it’s no secret what’s keeping the iPhone outside the corporate walls-and what it would take for IT to lower the drawbridge and let it in. Those deficiencies, and more, are keeping the iPhone outside of the corporate walls.
Forrester Research analyst Ben Gray compiled a laundry list of deficiencies in a recent advisory to clients recommending they keep the iPhone at bay. Among them:
- The iPhone doesn’t natively support push e-mail or over-the-air calendar synchronization.
- There is a dearth of third-party applications for the iPhone.
- The iPhone does not support file or disk encryption.
- IT administrators cannot set password policies, a feature offered on mainstream competing devices.
- Should it be lost or stolen, the iPhone cannot be remotely locked or wiped.
- The iPhone is available only in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, where exclusive carrier deals are in place.
- The iPhone’s battery is not removable. A dead battery calls for a new-and expensive-iPhone.
- The touch-screen user interface means slower typing than with a tactile keypad.
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The development of corporate applications for the iPhone will be a critical factor in determining the device’s success or failure in the enterprise. Although a few applications have been developed, the iPhone shipped without an SDK (software development kit). Things could change soon, however, as Apple is readying an SDK for release in February.
But with the emergence of Google’s Android mobile application, which is backed by the OHA (Open Handset Alliance) and its 34 industry participants, the iPhone could find its SDK playing second fiddle to Android. Some tea leaf readers, however, foresee connections between Android and the iPhone, pointing to the fact that Google Chairman Eric Schmidt also sits on the board of Apple.
Other iPhone developments could change the corporate equation. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson has said publicly that an iPhone with features that can be exploited by third-generation wireless networks will roll out this year. 3G capabilities include higher speeds, advanced multimedia support and global roaming.
Until it gains the features that enterprises demand, the iPhone will remain an unsupported enterprise device, eliciting a draconian response from corporate IT.
“We have had a couple of requests about the iPhone,” said Greg Smith, CIO at the World Wildlife Fund. “People wanted to know when we would buy iPhones. The answer is, we have a standard [the BlackBerry]. It’s a platform that has been very well researched. If the device has not been bought by us, it is not supported or integrated.”
Despite that hard line, Smith is not blind to historical parallels. “We used to hear the same thing about the PC,” he said.
Compatibility with Microsoft’s Exchange Server would be a big boost for the iPhone, said Smith. “Most corporations might pay for it if it were integrated,” he said.
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Similarly, Kristofor Swanson, vice president of learning and talent management for mobile strategy at Merrill Lynch, said that without better security and back-end administrative support, the iPhone will be an outsider at the financial services company, where the BlackBerry is standard issue.
Still, he sees similarities between the iPhone and the early Black-Berrys. “The BlackBerry went from a two-way pager to pushing the envelope,” Swanson said. “The iPhone is only on Version 1-it’s only [a matter] of time before there’s a business-ready version of the iPhone.”
And despite extensively cataloguing its deficiencies, Forrester’s Gray wrote in a recent report that corporate IT must get ready for the day when the iPhone is a corporate reality. Mobile device management software vendors will probably add support for the iPhone’s Mac OS X, he wrote. Meanwhile, the push from above will become irresistible: “C-level executives are buying them and expecting support from IT,” Gray wrote. “It’s only a matter of time before the iPhone filters down the corporate pyramid, and IT should have a strategy to handle these requests.”
Even when it gains the missing features that corporate IT requires, a fully featured enterprise iPhone will face a deeply entrenched incumbent population of corporate Black-Berrys and Palm devices, among others.
And the vendors of these devices are certainly not standing still.
“It’s only a matter of time till we see a touch-screen BlackBerry device,” said Swanson.