Come this June, in enterprises across the country, I expect that Treos will begin to wither in the eyes of one-time loyalists, and that erstwhile thumb-keyboard addicts will start to judge their BlackBerrys to be significantly sourer. That’s because June is the month in which Apple has promised to ship an enterprise and third-party application embracing the 2.0 version of the firmware that drives its popular but so-far solidly consumer-focused iPhone and iPod Touch devices.
The software update, which will be freely available for current iPhone users, and offered to iPod Touch owners for a nominal but as-yet-undisclosed fee, addresses the enterprise functionality gaps in the current firmware by adding support for Microsoft Exchange via ActiveSync, as well as a Cisco VPN client, and a set of enterprise policy enforcement tools to include remote device wiping. In addition, iPhone 2.0 will allow for client-side installation of third-party applications through an Apple-run service called the App Store.
Apple’s iPhone will be far from the first mobile device to offer the enterprise connectivity and management features that Steve Jobs announced today. However, from a hardware perspective, the iPhone and the iPod Touch are, by far, the most impressive mobile devices I’ve ever laid hands on.
As for software, my biggest qualm about Apple’s platform has been its resistance to third-party applications. While the version of the Safari Web browser that ships with the iPhone is certainly very impressive, it’s not until you “jailbreak” one of these devices and begin trying out the various underground applications that you see their full potential.
Of course, the trouble with the jailbreak route, which takes advantage of a security vulnerability in a previous version of Safari to load an application installer (one that seems very similar to the official App Store tool that Apple announced today), is that you can’t fully trust the applications to which you gain access. When I hacked my own iPod Touch to admit new software onto the device, I was introduced to a “community sources” package from the “official” installer repository, through which I could install still other software sources, which were further removed from the initial jailbreak/installer developer team I’d decided to trust by hacking my device in the first place.
Under the software distribution scheme that Apple announced today, developers will pay $99 to join the program, which will be the sole sanctioned source of iPhone applications. I imagine that there will always be a way to install unsanctioned applications, but I’m hoping that Apple executes well enough with its App Store to keep me on the software repository straight and narrow.
It’s not clear what, if anything, Apple will do to vet these applications, but I’m pleased to see that all apps offered through the Apple service will be signed by a certificate that should at least ensure that the applications you choose to install will come from the source you believe they’re coming from. Beyond the binary-signing, I’d like to see Apple move away from allowing all applications to run as root, which is the current state of iPhone application permissions.
And what about Palm, RIM, and their cellular carrier overlords? Here’s hoping that Apple’s incursion into these firms’ enterprise terrain proves incentive enough to prompt significant new hardware advances–and leverage enough for Palm, RIM and others to force the wireless oligarchs to allow these advancements to come to market.