While the economy limps along, Chris Cunningham's heating and air conditioning business in suburban Indianapolis is enjoying unprecedented success. Business at Service Plus Heating and Air Conditioning is up 40 percent since Cunningham passed out a new tool to his technicians earlier this year.

Moving much of his business to iPhones has transformed his operation, says Cunningham. 'It has really set us apart locally, set us light years ahead of my competition,'' Cunningham says. 'It has changed everything. I've been able to hire two extra technicians.'

Business applications for iPhones are expanding at a mind-boggling pace. You can manage your payroll, bank accounts, transactions, appointments, communications, and more from an appliance small enough to slip in a pocket. But does it make sense to move almost all of your business operations to an iPhone? Is it possible to be too reliant on the iPhone and its many apps?

The answers, say the experts, depend much on what type of business you're running and what sort of functionalities you require.

Putting mobility in new hands

The ability to conduct business via the iPhone or a smartphone is bringing connectivity to the blue collar workforce -- or at least the blue collar workers who toil from location to location, notes Luc Vezina, director of product marketing for Protus, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) business communications company. 'I'm always amazed at how often it's the people who aren't in the office setting who are using this stuff,'' says Vezina. 'Now you can give a smartphone to an employee where it didn't make sense to give them a computer. You have people who were before doing paper-based tasks and giving them a smartphone isn't costing you as much as providing a computer and an Internet connection.'

For businesses that move functions such as service orders and credit card processing to an iPhone at work sites, the benefits are readily apparent, says Cunningham. He notes these improvements:

  • More efficient customer service.  With the flick of a thumb, his technicians can show manufacturers' websites with furnace specifications. On a standard proposal, each model number links back to the manufacturer's site. Bills, pricing forms, and estimates are loaded and ready to go. Cunningham, who says wryly, 'I'm not a computer programmer,' spent a weekend creating the forms using FormSpring's Web form builders. He spends just $30 a month for the FormSpring service. 'My guys can produce three or four estimates effortlessly,' Cunningham says.
  • Quicker turnaround.  Businesses that rely on writing orders in the field can particularly benefit from using iPhone apps. 'We used to have to do a paper carbonless copy, and it would take a 24-hour turnaround,'' says Cunningham. 'Now, when a technician hits send, I know instantly what he's done, what he's charged.
  • Mitigating human error.  Handwriting can be difficult to read. Workers without any great love for completing forms can be sloppy or forgetful. 'We had a great office staff before, but the road block was always my technicians,'' Cunningham says.
  • Cost savings.  Cunningham spent $1,200 on six iPhones and pays about $700 a month for AT&T service, less than his phone bill was before. He saves the money he spent printing orders, and he figures the expense is a far cry from the $10,000 to $15,000 he would have spent on other automation systems he considered.

Performing so many business apps on iPhones and smartphones clearly works well if you're not tethered to an office. Vezina sees real estate agents, truck drivers, and construction supervisors taking advantage of the apps. Marc Cantell and his Chinook Materials team use Egnyte, a virtual file server, to pull up architectural drawings or contracts at construction sites in suburban Portland, Ore. The best business apps are single purpose and easy to use without much of a learning curve, Vezina advises.

When using an iPhone doesn't make sense

Still, there are times when an iPhone won't suffice. An iPhone or a smartphone work well when you're not trying to enter a significant amount of information, points out Vezina. Trying to write a lengthy e-mail? Working on multiple files at once? Manipulate a complicated website? You don't want to abandon your laptop or PC just yet.

For folks who work extensively with spreadsheets, the trend is actually toward bigger monitors, Vezina says. Cunningham still uses an office PC to run Quickbooks.

And while some business apps are a revelation and are transforming the way we do business, others are downright buggy, says Mark Kadrich, CEO of The Security Consortium, a business security consulting company. He particularly dislikes the inability to effectively edit documents. 'Yes, there are apps that allow you to edit documents, but give me a break!' he says. 'They're buggy and difficult to use. There's no way for you to see how a doc looks, not to mention being able to print something.' Kadrich and others also caution that they still have security concerns about vulnerabilities in the iPhone platform.

Reliability is an issue as well for Tony Nestor, CEO of Progress Technologies, Inc., and a software developer. Enjoy the benefits of connectivity, but remain a bit cautious, he advises. Back up data elsewhere and have an alternative appliance readily available.

'As a small business owner, I have found our iPhones and Blackberry devices to be crucial to staying connected while on the move,'' Nestor says. 'Er, that is until they stop working. I would say moving everything over to mobile is a lot like the old saying, ‘Putting all your eggs in one basket.'''