Unless your white iPod earphones have been stuck in your ears over the past six months, no doubt you've heard Apple has just launched one of -- if not -- the most eagerly anticipated device of the year.
The iPhone, which combines a widescreen media player, smartphone and host of Internet services ranging from messaging to navigation, is as gorgeous as it is functional. It also features a revolutionary "flick" interface that lets you use your fingertip on the touch-screen to navigate through all your content. It includes a 2-megapixel camera and integrated Wi-Fi for high-speed wireless surfing.
That sound you just heard was millions of gadget geeks salivating.
Clearly being in possession of an iPhone can help an entrepreneur make an impression on potential customers, partners, or financiers, but is this digital Swiss Army Knife ideal to help run your business? The answer depends on whom you ask.
Push versus pull e-mail
Smartphones have helped small and mid-sized businesses support mobility for employees, keeping them tethered to e-mail and the Internet in addition to being reachable by phone while traveling on business, meeting with clients, or even running errands. But the question is whether the iPhone's features are worth the additional high-end price.
“I don't think the iPhone will be a great device for businesses -- it was built entirely as a consumer device,” says Gary Chen, senior analyst for small and medium enterprise IT infrastructure and applications at the Yankee Group, a Boston, Mass.-based technology research and consulting firm.
The big application on smartphones for businesses is push e-mail, says Chen. Push e-mail provides an "always on" functionality, transferring e-mail in real-time (push) instead of requiring the device to "pull" it from the mail server. "The iPhone won't be able to connect to these systems," Chen says. The iPhone does have Post Office Protocol (POP) and Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP), which provide nearly instant notification of a new message, but require the device or user to retrieve the new e-mails. "That isn't the same as push," says Chen.
Bryan Chaffin, editor in chief of the Mac Observer, a San Jose, Calif.-based online news magazine that has been publishing information about Apple products and services since 1998, agrees with Chen -- to some extent. “The iPhone doesn’t offer a lot to small businesses because the e-mail application may be a bit slow,” explains Chaffin. “But the e-mail application is also very easy to use, so it’s simple to find and read your e-mail, look up your addresses, and view photos sent to you.” The fact that e-mail appears to be hassle-free could a selling point to small or mid-size businesses for executives or mobile employees.
The "real" Internet
One of the selling points of the iPhone, however, is that it provides a full-featured Internet experience, much superior to what most Web-enabled phones now offer. “The iPhone makes it easy to surf the Internet and with not a stripped-down version -- ‘the real Internet’ as Apple puts it -- which no one else has offered yet in this space,” Chaffin says. The non-linear voice mail application, which lets users listen to recorded messages in any order they choose, could also help save time for a business owner.
While Chen agrees with Chaffin that the “iPhone certainly has a sleek design going for it,” he says that it doesn’t have clear support for any other mobile enterprise applications. “It is a closed system and they don't seem to be concerned at the moment about building an enterprise ISV [independent software vendor] ecosystem,” Chen says. The device also lacks a Java Virtual Machine, which "might have allowed existing apps to work and the phone itself is closed to third party apps,” Chen adds.
Finally, the price might be an obstacle for cost-conscious small-to-mid-sized businesses. Depending on the amount of internal memory, the iPhone costs $500 or $600, plus a two-year AT&T carrier commitment (with a hefty monthly data plan).
That high price is going to dissuade most small and mid-sized businesses who are generally operating on lower margins and are fairly price sensitive, believes Chen.
But there is a difference between standardizing on a device for an entire company and providing select entrepreneurs or executives with a stylish and pricey device that may make a statement to clients, partners, and even venture capitalists that a fast-growing firm is "with it" technologically. “Sure, price will definitely be a barrier to entry -- especially if buying one for everyone in the company -- but it’s not significantly more than a high-end Treo or BlackBerry,” notes Chaffin.
For the iPhone, that price needs to be weighed against making a stylish statement.