How to configure and deploy the iPhone 3G for business, part 1

If it's going to be used at work, IT needs to know what to do

One of the biggest stories behind the release of the iPhone 3G -- and the iPhone 2.0 firmware update for first-generation iPhones -- was the inclusion of features designed for use in business environments. While many analysts and enterprise users have argued in recent weeks about whether the iPhone can replace Research In Motion's BlackBerry as the prevailing smart phone for business, little has been said about the tools and processes that Apple offers systems administrators to actually deploy and manage iPhones at work.

In this three-part series, I'll look at three areas that make up the IT side of enterprise iPhone deployment: the activation, configuration and deployment process; how the iPhone is managed in an Exchange environment (including tips for some early adopters); and the options for developing and deploying in-house iPhone applications.

Here I offer advice on how best to activate, configure and deploy the iPhone. Parts 2 and 3 will be posted during the next month.

Activation and iTunes

One of the first steps in deploying the iPhone in any environment is the activation process. This involves both the purchase and business account setup, which is done in concert with AT&T in the U.S. or with other carriers in other countries where the iPhone is sold. Working with a carrier directly makes sense for developing necessary business plans, and it's required for any business iPhone activation, whether you're from a mom-and-pop operation or a big company.

As with any GSM smart phone, activation requires associating a SIM card with a business account and a specific phone number. This is handled by the carrier, which may provide already-active SIM cards (much like the in-store activation for consumers), or you may need to activate the iPhone after inserting the SIM card and before deployment.

The specific route you take will depend on both the carrier and whether you're re-using existing SIM cards. In general, assume that you will need iTunes to activate the iPhone, particularly if you're buying more than a handful.

Note: With the iPod Touch 2.0 update, the iPod Touch can offer several of the iPhone's enterprise features, although it cannot make or receive calls and needs Wi-Fi access for any data service. The iPod Touch is also activated with iTunes.

Although iTunes should be considered an activation requirement, it's not required for enterprise functionality. Once activated, an iPhone can be configured and used without iTunes, allowing users access to many of the iPhone's data features such as Web browsing, e-mail and other Exchange features -- including calendars and the Global Address List -- and applications. They can also send and receive calls. Without iTunes, users will not, however, be able to sync music, video, photos or Web browser bookmarks.

That means you have two major options when it comes to activating and deploying iPhones: You can manage the activation within your IT department, where all iPhones are activated with a limited number of computers using iTunes and then distributed to users, or you can give users access to iTunes and allow them to activate and sync their phones on their own (or activate them with the guidance of an IT staff member).

Each choice has merit and each has potential problems. Allowing employee access to iPhones via iTunes is a questionable move in a business environment. Even if users only plan to build and sync media libraries to a company-provided iPhone, iTunes could still be used to update or restore the phone without IT supervision or test newly released updates.

On the other hand, iTunes backs up the contents of an iPhone, including all of its settings, during each sync. That can provide a safety net for users in case of problems or if the phone is lost or stolen. And it provides a convenient sync of mail accounts, calendars and contacts in a non-Exchange environment, and Web browser bookmarks in any environment.

Note: In predominantly Mac environments, Apple's managed preferences architecture makes it possible to some restrict individual iTunes features. Similar options for doing this in Windows environments are available by editing the appropriate Registry keys. If your organization opts for user activation and syncing, these offer better options than wide-scale access to all of iTunes. But there is still no way to limit iTunes solely to sync functionality for the iPhone.

For many enterprises, the ideal option is likely to be centralized iPhone activation, particularly in an Exchange environment where user e-mail and calendar data is synced directly to the Exchange server rather than requiring sync with a workstation.

This allows more control over data on the iPhone, avoids the need to install iTunes on workstations and positions IT as the contact for any iPhone-related issues. It also helps a company stop users from associating their phones with an Apple ID and iTunes Store account, making it harder for them to make purchases through the App Store for iPhone or the iTunes Wi-Fi Store.

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