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Will the iPhone Fly as a Business Tool?

The touchscreen phone that’s been a must-have status symbol for the technorati is about to make a push into the business tool market. Experts debate the pros and cons of the iPhone for business usage.
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Gadget geeks will forever remember June 29, 2007, as the date Apple unleashed its much-hyped iPhone, a digital Swiss Army Knife that fused a handful of features -- mobile phone, camera, media player and Wi-Fi-enabled Web device -- with a graceful touch-based navigation interface.

It became a sought-after consumer sensation, and remains as one to this day, but it seems Apple and third parties are trying to find a way the iPhone could also double as a clever business tool.

But is there room for the iPhone in a world dominated by powerful smartphones with cutting-edge e-mail delivery, such as the BlackBerry? We spoke with analysts on whether or not it’s possible.

Nathan Dyer, senior analyst for enterprise mobility at the Boston, Mass.-based Yankee Group, believes it can happen, and transforming this consumer product into a business tool will likely come from Apple opening up the platform to software developers. “The ‘holy grail’ in the mobility space for businesses is maximizing productivity and effectiveness of its workers, regardless of their location,” says Dyer. “Mobile workers need access to the same applications and corporate data that they have in the office -- and it's these third-party software vendors that will provide the infrastructure hooks to make the iPhone ‘business class’.”

In March 2008, for example, Microsoft officially announced it was offering built-in support for Exchange, it's messaging and collaboration platform, on the iPhone.

“This is significant,” believes Chris Hazelton, senior analyst, mobile device technology and trends at IDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based technology research firm. “With Exchange ActiveSync on the iPhone, mobile businesspersons can connect to a company’s Exchange server behind a firewall.”

Hazelton says Microsoft is also considering building Excel, Word, and PowerPoint accessibility into the device, which also means those receiving corporate e-mail on the iPhone can view and edit Microsoft Office attachments.

Pro: Intuitive design and functionality

When asked what might help the iPhone’s chances of catching on as a business device, Dyer says the device is extremely powerful and intuitive to use. “It takes complicated functionality, such as Wi-Fi integration and embedded Web searching, and makes it intuitive to the user.” Dyer adds, “The Safari Web browser on the iPhone has enormous potential to shift how workers access and generate content.”

Hazelton says the iPhone's popularity makes it an attractive alternative to other smartphones: “When I look at the history of the BlackBerry, it was a sign of prestige that you were important enough for the company to give you email anywhere you need it,” says Hazelton, “and now the BlackBerry is a standard for mobile workers.” But maybe it's time for BlackBerry to move over, because there's a new status-symbol for business users. “Now the iPhone has that air of elitism and prestige -- executives want the iPhone in their world -- so IT departments believe they have to account for that,” says Hazelton.

The iPhone’s extras, such as a camera and music playback, also make it an appealing phone, says Hazelton. “You’ve got this willingness to carry device with you -- you can load it up with music, movies, photos, and podcasts, which can make a long flight for an executive a better one.” He adds that the HTML browser is perfect whether you’re checking inventory or sports scores.

Con: Lacks a compelling productivity story for IT

Despite its growing popularity, Apple doesn't have very much brand recognition -- especially among IT departments -- argues Dyer. “That, and the iPhone lacks a compelling productivity story to justify investment at this point.”

One common issue, for some, is the “soft” keyboard, opposed to the BlackBerry or Treo with its button-based QWERTY keyboard (note: some BlackBerrys offer a condensed “SureType” keyboard). “The messaging interface [on the iPhone] is very cumbersome and takes some time getting used to,” says Dyer.

But Hazelton says the keyboard isn’t an issue for everyone. “Yes, with the iPhone you actually need to look at the keyboard because there is no tactile feedback, it’s a different type of experience, but I can’t say one type of keyboard takes longer to type an e-mail than the other.” Hazelton says not many iPhone users know you can drag your thumbs across the soft keyboard and lift up when you get the desired letter. “If you can master this, you can text as fast as any BlackBerry.”

Finally, security is an issue for all mobile devices, claim Dyer and Hazelton. The iPhone is no exception, especially as it has built-in Wi-Fi connectivity. Hazelton, however, says the next-generation iPhone software should support Cisco Virtual Private Network (VPN) and other security measures to help protect company data.

Last updated: May 1, 2008




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