Lately there’s been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere and beyond about whether or not the iPhone is a viable business tool. Most people cite Apple’s closed development environment, lack of strong application support and virtually non-existent enterprise legacy tools as reasons the iPhone will flop in Business – just ask impartial pundit Steve Ballmer..I am here to tell you it will be successful – perhaps only in isolated industries and for reasons that aren’t really being discussed in detail.

 

 

First, let’s talk about some of the business needs of smartphone users in a roundabout order of importance.

  1. Phone – it IS a iPhone afterall
  2. Email – currently the most popular means of business communications
  3. Address/Phone Book – a contact database
  4. SMS – quick and dirty way to contact another mobile phone user
  5. VoiceMail – a (up until now unweildy) database of voice messages
  6. Chat client – a meeans of "instant" messaging that is rapidly increasing in popularity
  7. WEB BROWSER – by far the most underpowered and underappreciated part of a mobile phone which is the lifeblood of the desktop machine
  8. Calendar, maps, spreadheets, document reader etc.

All of these things are important and all of them can be done to a greater or lessor extent on most business-focused PDA phones.

In the business domain, the mobile web browser is the key to the future of business apps. It is a becoming platform onto itself. One thing that Steve Jobs made abundantly clear at MacWorld was that the iPhone would include a FULL browser. Symbian/Linux platform’s best browser is Opera Mini – which isn’t that bad but by no means a full browser. Windows Mobile’s browser isn’t bad either but is again, well short of IE7. Additionally, the iPhone browser has a lot of zooming and panning tricks that make it more usable on the relatively small screen. In this crucial area, give the advantage to the iPhone.

Why is the browser crucial? Because most new business applications are being built around it. AJAX and other browser technology innovations over the past few years have turned the browser into a platform unto itself. Sure a lot of legacy applications still require browserless, platform specific, client applications. But those days are numbered.

Its not just the isolated applications that are moving to the browser. All of the stalwart office applications are also moving to the web. With Google Office, Soho Office and even web versions of Microsoft Office applications, the browser is truly the new business platform.

Perfect? No
The iPhone is not without its business-use flaws. It doesn’t natively sync up with Exchange – and Microsoft will most likely do everything in its power to try to keep it that way. It does have the capability to hook up to IMAP email, LDAP address book and WebDav for calendaring – which with a bit of tweaking will work well for Exchange-based companies. Microsoft SharePoint can also be browsed from the web interface but to what extent? Time (and your apps developers) will tell. A newly annointed relationship with Cisco on all things iPhone should also let your iPhone into the VPN. When and how are still unknowns. And of course, don’t forget the arduous task of getting your conservative IT department to accept the idea of an Apple phone, let alone Apple computer loose in the ofice.

Also the first generation iPhone isn’t the raw specs winner by any stretch – those belong to the Windows Mobile Phones coming from Toshiba (

  • EDGE wireless is SLOW by todays standards. Wifi will help but one can only wonder why Apple has forsaken the HSDPA/UTMS component and when the update will occur. As many have pointed out, battery life is a factor as the EDGE chips are much more efficient.
  • Also, the 4-8Gb limit on storage is an absolute killer. At a time when you can buy an 8Gb SD card for under $80 one has to wonder why the storage limit is so low. Hopefully Apple, like they have in the past, up their standards before launch. This underpromising thing is definitely a new trend to watch. I’d even settle for a micro/mini/SD card slot.
  • The hefty pricetag is a definite disadvantage. With somewhat comparable gear like Motorola Q’s going for almost free with a service plan, its going to require some justification to spend the equivalent of a budget laptop on something the size of a Hershy Bar. However something that you spend 1/2 your day on should justify the premium that this lovely piece of hardware demands.
  • The Konqueror-based Safari Web browser has its limitations. It doesn’t work fully or sometimes at all on some web applications (Yahoo mail, Google Apps, Microsoft anything) – though support is building and the browser continues to improve.

We can’t measure all metrics.
There are two other things that can’t be intrinsically measured that will give the iPhone a distinct advantage.

1. Usability. Apple’s legendary reputation for making painful tasks easy and intrinsic will totally transform the mobile phone industry. Until now the big players have been Microsoft Windows Mobile, Symbian, and Linux. They all have had their successes but the last 10% of usability that Apple is always able to squeeze out (which always requires 90% of the work) will be the differentiator. Apple did the same in the Computer industry until Microsoft caught up. Apple has learned from this and patented every minute detail of the iPhone which will make copying much more difficult. (Not that it won’t happen.)

The 2 seconds here and 5 seconds there that the iPhone saves quickly add up. So, too, does the amount of frustration that people have with their phones. This will be a big word of mouth selling point.

2. Business Bling, Baby. Everyone knows that this is THE phone to have. There is no question. It’s about Brand and everything the Apple iPhone stands for. Apple has spent the last few years building up its brand across all channels and is reaping the rewards like not other company in the industry. As much as the enterprise IT guys will read off better specs for the new Windows Mobile device, nobody wants to hear about the m600 – G900 – chocojack. I can hear the CEO now "I don’t give a F$ck! just make the iphone work on our systems!" Of course just like the fecal matter rolls down hill so does the corporate equipment. Oh, and sales? Show up to a meeting with an important client with last years phone? Might as well wear parachute pants as well.

Oh, and did I mention this thing is neat? Apple has the ability to turn adults back into kids at the toy store. How? I am not sure. But I need an iPhone like I needed that Atari 2600 and can’t wait for Christmas to come this June!

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