Technology

Making the iPhone Better for Business


While its new smartphone is gorgeous and innovative, Apple should consider a few tweaks to optimize the iPhone for the corporate world

The arrival of the Apple iPhone has been an occasion for both praise of its breakthrough design and skepticism regarding its usefulness for business. Even before the device's June 29 debut in stores, Gartner Group (IT) warned corporations that the use of iPhones for e-mail could create serious security problems. On June 28, employees of the McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP), publisher of BusinessWeek, received official notice that because the iPhone "has been designed mainly for the consumer market and would not work within a corporate computing environment…it cannot be supported."

Beyond its enormous coolness factor, the iPhone is in many ways a significant advance over all the other smartphones on the market. Apple (AAPL) designed it without catering to the extremely conservative tastes of wireless carriers. The result, while far from perfect, is an object of desire that many corporate executives will want to carry instead of their stodgy Research in Motion (RIMM) BlackBerrys or Palm (PALM) Treos.

The iPhone's exterior is responsible for its immediate emotional appeal. It looks beautiful and it feels wonderful in your hand. As has been extensively noted, the iPhone suffers from the choice of AT&T's (T) relatively slow EDGE network. The browser and other Web-based applications, such as Google (GOOG) Maps and YouTube perform extremely well when connected to a Wi-Fi network, but are painful on EDGE. About the only other thing I can criticize about the external design is that, unlike most handsets, it provides no obvious clue how to hold it, making it easy to grip in a way that interferes with the antenna's reception. (Hint: Keep your hand clear of the plastic area at the bottom of the screen when held vertically.)

The Software Side

But Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs is right when he says that what really distinguishes the iPhone from lesser handsets is the software. Yet from the point of view of a business user, that software is both a blessing and a curse.

On one hand, the user interface is a marvel. For example, the ability to expand or shrink a Web page simply by spreading your fingers apart or pinching them together is by far the best solution I have seen to fitting big Web pages on a small screen. Typing with the on-screen keyboard does take getting used to, especially accepting the fact that iPhone's software will correct most of your typos. Once you get the hang of that, it's at least as usable as the little thumb keyboards on other handhelds.

The problem arises with key applications that business users need. Most of these issues have to do with security, but since they are all software related, they are fixable. Here are some shortcomings that Apple needs to address:

Enterprise-Class E-mail

Microsoft (MSFT) Exchange is by far the most widely used corporate mail system, and it is a complex and ornery beast. The iPhone currently offers three potential ways to connect with Exchange mail. But, says Gartner Senior Analyst Ken Dulaney, "all of them are pretty weak."

First, you could use the iPhone's mail program if your company's Exchange server has Internet mail access enabled (most don't). If it does, you'll still need to find a way through the firewall that protects most Exchange servers. In my experience, even if this route is enabled, it is very hard to get it to work reliably. A second route is to use the iPhone's browser and Exchange's Outlook Web access. The drawbacks: You may still have firewall issues, it can be painfully slow on the EDGE network, and you only have access to your messages while connected to the network. Finally, you could forward all your mail to an Internet service, such a Yahoo! (YHOO) Mail or Google's Gmail. This is very easy, but most corporations flatly prohibit the practice for security reasons.

Most enterprises insist on a secure method for delivering Exchange mail directly to a mobile device that gives corporate information technology managers a way to delete data if the phone is lost or stolen. The three primary methods for doing this are Research in Motion's BlackBerry Enterprise Server, Motorola's (MOT) Good Mobile Messaging, and Microsoft's Direct Push Technology. Apple has to partner with one or more of them to develop such software for the iPhone. The good news is that while Apple refuses to discuss its plans, there have been persistent rumors of negotiations toward such deals.

Virtual Private Networking

VPN is used to allow secure access to a corporate network through a firewall. The iPhone comes with the same VPN software used on the Mac, but Dulaney describes it as "vulnerable and antiquated." Apple needs to work with companies such as Cisco Systems (CSCO) and Nortel Networks (NT) to develop software for enterprise-class VPNs. This would have the side benefit of improving remote access to corporate networks with a Mac computer.

Out-of-Sync Contacts

iPhone is supposed to sync contacts and calendar entries from Microsoft Outlook on your computer. When I tried it, the process seemed to work smoothly, but only about half of my 1,400 contacts made it to the phone. The problem was caused by the iTunes sync software, which choked on the entries in a very obscure data field in Outlook. Apple offered a rather complicated work-around, but it really needs to fix the bug since most businesspeople are lost without their Outlook contacts.

Fix Safari's Missing Features

Apple promised that the Safari browser would bring the "real Internet" to the iPhone instead of the crippled version of Web pages that you can get on most handhelds. It also said that the ability to write browser-based applications was an adequate alternative to the sort of third-party native applications that are available on all other smartphones.

It turns out that both claims are drastically overstated. The iPhone version of Safari is missing two major building blocks of Web-based applications, Sun Microsystems' (SUNW) Java, which is used to run programs in a browser window, and Adobe Systems' (ADBE) Flash, which is used to generate video and multimedia images. Both are extensively used on both consumer and internal corporate Web sites.

Perhaps more seriously, iPhone only half-supports the technologies used to allow users to create content on Web sites, again an approach widely used on both consumer and business sites. The biggest problem is that most of the time, clicking on an area of a page designed from free-form data entry fails to bring up the iPhone's on-screen keyboard, leaving you no way to enter anything. As a result, such Web-based applications as Google and Zoho's productivity applications and Six Apart's TypePad blogging tool don't work on the iPhone.

The problem is solvable, since Transmedia has figured out a way to make its Glide Mobile suite of applications work on the iPhone. But Apple should come up with a general solution rather than forcing each Web service to find a work-around on its own. Apple should also work with Adobe and Sun to add Flash and Java support to the iPhone and to improve Safari's handling of Javascript.

At the moment, corporate IT departments really don't have much to fear from iPhones because they just aren't equipped to work with enterprise systems. But mobile executives buy the overwhelming majority of smartphones, and Apple is going to need these customers. It should move quickly to develop the software partnerships required to meet their needs and win their business.

UPDATE (7/17/07)—The bug that prevented synchronization of some Outlook contacts was fixed by the release of version 7.3.1.3 of iTunes.


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