Let's try for a minute to ignore all the reports about the dropped-call epidemic plaguing Apple's iPhone 4. Instead, let's focus on its myriad of other capabilities and tackle the real burning question for small-business owners: is it finally time to dump your BlackBerry and jump on the Apple bandwagon?
As we'll explain, the planets have finally aligned and the iPhone 4 is remarkably well-suited to business users, especially those who need a durable, highly readable, and app-centric device. There are only a few minor caveats, and most of them are not major hurdles for business adoption.
Of course, the concept of using an iPhone in business is a recent phenomenon.
When Apple first started touting the iPhone as business-friendly, there were a few glaring omissions. Many smaller companies use Microsoft products -- Word for creating documents, Exchange Server for e-mail, PowerPoint for slideshows. Microsoft was, not surprisingly, absent from the iPhone party.
The iPhone not only didn't work with Exchange, but it had a hard time with documents in general. Say you wanted to write a quick business plan on your smartphone, tapping in the gist of your company objectives and then sending it to a colleague by e-mail. There wasn't an app for that. You could write a new e-mail, but there wasn't a full office suite with a spell-checker, outlining, and tables.
Back in business
Fortunately, over the past two years, Apple has made good progress. In 2008, they released iPhone Exchange ActiveSync so business users can configure their e-mail accounts to work with Exchange Server -- and these messages would "push" to the device automatically. (For me, this means not having to obsessively click the Send/Receive option in the mail client -- my mail just appears.)
New office apps for the iPhone, such as Documents-to-Go and QuickOffice, have made it possible to not only view Microsoft Word and Excel files, but create new documents and make changes to them.
In fact, there are now business apps from Oracle, Salesforce.com, FileMaker, SAP, Wyse, and Cisco WebEx. There are also several powerful enterprise-class tools from upstart developers, such as Workday (for HR), Roambi (for business intelligence), and iSchedule (for time cards).
Evernote, which lets you jot down reminders and keep track of important "business intelligence" data, uses a sleek and highly intuitive interface. Things, a task manager, helps you track your to-do list. Skype, which is currently the most popular iPhone app on iTunes, lets you make video calls with other Skype users, although it only works over a Wi-Fi network. There are even apps for just about every major bank, shipping company (e.g., UPS and FedEx), and newspaper.
The iPhone is an almost guaranteed hit with employees. Sure, some of the best games and utilities are available on Android-powered models like the HTC Evo. But you'll make the day of your accounting manager and your inside sales rep by pre-loading Angry Birds, Fieldrunners, the Kindle app from Amazon, and a handy flight-tracking app before presenting them to your staff.
Rugged and even easier on the eyes
The original iPhone was just a tad flimsy. A smartphone has to be durable enough to withstand abuse in the workplace. This is what makes Research in Motion's BlackBerry so attractive. You can mash on the keys, drop the device at an airport, or holster one all day and still rely on it.
Fortunately, the iPhone 4 is sturdier than the iPhone 3GS, released last year. In fact, the new model uses a metal body that is more rigid than the plastic used on the iPhone and iPhone 3GS. If you drop the iPhone 4, it will be less likely to get dinged, scratched, or (shudder to think) dented. The phone just feels more durable in your hand and more protected from the elements, including sweat and grime.
Another perk for business is that the iPhone 4 uses a new "retina" display that, in our tests, looked amazingly crisp. Apple claims the new display has more pixels than the human eye can see. Apart from the somewhat sketchy science behind this claim, the truth is the iPhone 4 looks about twice as clear as the iPhone 3GS, and that means you won't strain as much reading e-mails and browsing the Web.
The display on the iPhone 4, at 3.5-inches diagonally, is not nearly as big as some of the new Android models, including the HTC Evo, which logs in at 4.3 inches diagonally. For videoconferencing, the iPhone 4 video quality is only 320 x 240 pixels (worse than VGA) compared to the HTC Evo's 480 x 800 (better than VGA). However, to use video chat on the HTC Evo, you'll need the Qik app, which costs $5 per month. (As everyone knows from the TV commercials, Apple's FaceTime video chat app is free.)
Beyond video chat, the new iPhone also adds basic multi-tasking. Essentially, it means you can switch between apps, although it doesn't mean you can actually run, say, a spreadsheet in the background to handle some intense computational chores while you browse photos or play a game. Each app holds in its current state when you switch out of it, but will resume right where you left off.
But does Apple really mean business?
OK, so there are a bevy of business apps, the iPhone 4 is rugged and lets you video chat with Monica on the sales team, and it's a sexy and trendy device that will make employees happy.
Now for the downside.
In some market segments, the iPhone 4 is still not viable. For example, some healthcare companies, financial institutions, and government agencies need to keep a tight rein on smartphone use -- they control mobile devices with asset-tracking software. For companies that standardize on BlackBerry phones, there's BlackBerry Enterprise Server, a robust business tool that lets you track handheld assets, manage policies for passwords and remote access, and even restrict calling options.
Meanwhile, Apple has a really good desktop app for buying the latest Tom Petty album.
No, seriously -- Apple has not addressed asset tracking in any way. There is no powerful, enterprise-class option for making sure employees adhere to company policies. Conversely, with a Microsoft Windows Mobile device or a BlackBerry, it's possible to configure the phone so that it cannot be used to access a company network. With an iPhone, you might be able to block its MAC address (a code unique to each phone), but there is no Apple enterprise option for security management or asset tracking.
Apple does provide a way for businesses to locate and lock down a stolen or lost iPhone, however. And, there are third-party asset-tracking tools for the iPhone, such as Dell KACE.
Another potential business issue has to do with the rich entertainment features on the iPhone. They're great for the consumer. For your employees, they could present a distraction. By handing out free iPhones to employees, you could be construed as saying that it's OK to watch movies at work. Windows Mobile devices and many BlackBerry models are intended more for basic calling and e-mail.
One final roadblock on Apple's path to business-use glory used to be the cost of wireless service. Thankfully, AT&T revised its wireless plans to make them more attractive. You can now purchase the iPhone 4 16GB for $199 plus about $40 per month for voice (450 minutes) and $15 data (200MB). Originally, iPhone users got stuck with a $100 per month all-you-can-eat plan.
The final analysis
Apple has attracted a legion of enterprise-class developers and made the iPhone more affordable, durable and easier to read for e-mail. The total cost of ownership is about the same as other smartphones. The ROI is amazingly high, because there is an app for just about every business need. And, the phone is still just as hip and trendy.
It's safe to board the Apple bus -- as long as you know a few minor trade-offs and caveats.