Opinion: Putting the iPhone to work -- at work

Many 'consumer' features are enterprise-worthy from the get-go

Everybody knows the iPhone is a consumer toy, right? Well, not exactly. Apple began positioning the iPhone as a business device early in 2008 when it introduced support for Microsoft Exchange and for third-party apps.

Since then, Apple has added hardware encryption and support for more enterprise technologies, including support for the CalDAV and iCalendar standards that allow users to subscribe to network- and Internet-based calendars. Add to that the nearly 5,000 apps contained in the Business and Productivity sections of the App Store -- not to mention a variety of office- and work-related apps listed in other categories -- and it's easy to see that the iPhone can easily be used as a business tool.

We've talked to a lot of professionals who use their iPhones for business. Almost all of them had a set of business-related apps that they'd purchased or downloaded from the App Store. What was surprising was just how much business use some were getting from even the most consumer-centric iPhone features.

Whether it's sending text messages, using the built-in camera, diving into YouTube, working with iPod/iTunes apps or connecting with social networking tools, seemingly unprofessional features and applications can yield professional gold.

[Also don't miss 10 top iPhone apps for IT pros.]

Texting

Text messaging is considered a casual form of communication, particularly in U.S., but that doesn't mean there aren't appropriate ways for business users to employ text messages. If you need to send brief notes to colleagues, particularly those working on traditional cell phones without easy access to e-mail, texts can be a great option -- especially if you need to ensure that a message is received quickly and you don't have a mail server with push notification. Think of it this way: Text messages are a simple way to communicate urgent messages quickly, such as letting staffers know that the e-mail server or phone system has gone down.

Or, if you're attending a big event or stuck in a meeting and want to pop out a brief note or question to a co-worker or customer, a text message can be a good, relatively unobtrusive way to do so immediately -- particularly if you need a fast response and you or the other person doesn't have access to an e-mail system with push notifications.

Shared calendaring systems, e-mail, phone calls or face-to-face contact are typically the best ways to schedule formal meetings, but for arranging on-the-fly get-togethers with colleagues -- or finding each other in crowds -- texts can be ideal.

In some industries, it's appropriate to invite customers to sign up for text notifications about your products and services, particularly if you sell directly to younger customers for whom texting is second nature. You can use the iPhone to send these updates or, for frequent updates to a large number of users, opt for dedicated software or Internet-based services that specialize in text-based marketing.

On the flip side, companies that you work with may already offer text-based marketing of their own that you can sign up for. It's a two-way street, with advantages for both the sender and receiver.

Camera

The iPhone's camera isn't the greatest digital camera in the world, but it can come in handy in all sorts of workplace settings. One of the most common ways I've seen it used in meetings is for taking photos of dry-erase boards. Snapping a few quick photos is faster and easier than sitting there copying down every diagram and tidbit of information. Likewise, it's handy for snapping photos of presentation slides, Post-it notes and other documents. (Of course, this can be considered a security threat in some operations, which may require that the camera be disabled on a company-provided iPhone.)

You can also use the iPhone's camera to take reference photos of work sites or locations; you can snap a photo that is time-stamped and geocoded with location data, and the newer iPhone 3GS even has video capability. This can be helpful in anything from showing your boss potential office locations or business prospects to selecting office furniture or supplies to meet business needs. It's also useful if you happen upon an accident or damage to company property.

Another photo-related feature, though it's technically not part of the camera, is the ability to take iPhone screenshots. Simultaneously pressing the iPhone's home and lock buttons will take a screenshot and add the image to the Camera Roll, exactly like a photo -- an easy way to capture data from a Web site or application. The screenshots will automatically be synced to your computer the next time you connect your iPhone to it.

Screenshots can also be sent via MMS or as e-mail attachments, or be uploaded to various services using third-party apps. Used in conjunction with the Maps app or a number of other travel and navigation tools, they can be used to provide directions and/or reference points to co-workers in the field.

iPod and iTunes

The most consumer-specific features of the iPhone -- the iPod and iTunes apps -- actually offer real business uses in their own right. This boils down to two types of use: the iPod app as a presentation tool, and an iTunes/iPod combo that can help with research and professional development.

For presentations and classes

Plugging an iPhone into a sound system lets you play a podcast or other recording, including music or sound effects -- an ideal audio tool for the classroom or corporate training.

To deliver audio-visual content, you can use Apple's universal dock and the appropriate cables to connect the iPhone to a compatible TV or projector, or use one of the new pico projectors (ultraportable projectors not much bigger than the iPhone itself) that connect directly to the iPhone's dock connector.

When used as an audiovisual presentation tool, the iPhone offers several ways to display content. One option is to use the iPod app to play a video file stored in your iTunes library and synced to the iPhone. Another option: Both Microsoft's PowerPoint and Apple's Keynote can export presentations as video files in formats playable on the iPhone, which allows you do traditional presentations (with or without audio). You can also e-mail a PowerPoint or Keynote file to your iPhone and then launch the viewer built into Mail to show it. Finally, several file managers and office suites for the iPhone also allow you to transfer and play presentations.

If you keep relevant music, lecture recordings or other audio and/or video content on your iPhone, you can be ready at a moment's notice to bolster any presentation. Keep in mind that storing such content on the phone eats up storage space; when buying or upgrading an iPhone, make sure you get one with enough capacity to meet your needs.

You can also use the iPhone to access material in the iTunes Store, or from other services that allow streaming content, making it possible to add to or improve a presentation on the go. Stuck on the train or waiting in an airport? You can still locate material to enhance your presentation. Just be sure not to infringe on any relevant presentation rights and copyright laws.

As a research vehicle

While most people think of music, movies and TV shows when they think of the iTunes Store, it can also serve as a research and professional development tool. The link between the iTunes Store and Audible.com, for instance, gives you access to a wide range of audio books. While the latest Dan Brown novel is there, so are many titles aimed at business, which means you can use commute or travel time to learn more about your field (or other fields) or expand your skill set.

Another option is iTunes U, which started out as a way for universities to make lectures available to their students. It has grown into a free option for anyone looking for lectures and presentations from hundreds of public universities and continuing education providers across the world. The material available through iTunes U (which can be accessed using iTunes on your computer or the iTunes app on the iPhone) covers every imaginable academic topic, from historical facts to economic theory to computer science.

Another option for research is the iTunes Podcast Directory. While this isn't a scholarly source of information like iTunes U, it can be a great way to stay informed about trends and discussions that affect your profession. As you might expect, the discussion varies widely in form and content, but if you're in a field that requires you to keep a finger on the pulse of your industry and customers, this is one good way to do it.

YouTube

YouTube is not typically a service that people associate with business -- except as a way of goofing off at your desk. But YouTube can be used to build your skills, network with others in your field, follow current trends, and even promote yourself or your company.

Many schools and organizations, as well as experts in a given field, post how-to videos on YouTube. Much like iTunes U or podcasts, this can be a great way to improve some of your existing skills or knowledge about specific industries. Given that most YouTube content is broken down into 10-minutes-or-less chunks, this is a great way to learn and research during a commute or a break between meetings.

Because YouTube is as much a social networking tool as it is a place to share and search for videos, it can also be helpful in keeping tabs on what's going on in a given market. For any industry that is at all trends-based -- from technology to fashion design and everything in between -- this is a great feature. You can even use this tactic and YouTube's ratings system to determine what marketing techniques are or aren't working well for others in your field.

Then there's the social networking and viral video nature of YouTube. For many fields, this can be a compelling marketing tool, if used properly. Although you can post directly to YouTube from the iPhone 3GS -- a great way to highlight on-the-ground footage (such as at an event or product launch) -- you'll typically want to post to YouTube from a computer so you can deliver more-polished footage. However, you can still respond to comments and track views of your videos directly from the iPhone's YouTube app.

Another useful way to use YouTube for marketing is to build a video portfolio, either of your company's products and services or of your own work. This allows for viral marketing and social networking, and it lets you offer people a quick go-to link for your portfolio.

It can also be handy for networking with people you meet in professional or social situations. For example, if you're in an airport waiting for a flight and end up talking with a fellow passenger, only to discover that he or she works in a related field, you can pull up your portfolio right then and there on your iPhone. Trust me, if the content you have is valuable, this will make an immediate impact. And you can e-mail that portfolio (as well as other material, such as a résumé or v-card) to your fellow traveler on the spot from your iPhone.

Social networking

Almost everyone is either using social networking to expand their business or seriously exploring how social networking can improve their bottom line. Regardless of the sector (private, public or government), social networking is fast becoming a basic business practice.

Busy professionals can use the iPhone to easily explore, use and juggle various social networking sites. The benefits of commonplace social networking apps such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, AOL Instant Messenger and LinkedIn are obvious, and there are more than 40 other applications available that make performing basic social networking tasks easy and efficient. Here's a sampling of some of our favorites

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