iPhone apps distribution still an issue for business

'Enterprise' distribution would mean workers download custom apps via iTunes

SAN FRANCISCO -- Some large businesses that have considered providing the next-generation iPhone for their workers listened with curiosity and some concern to Apple Inc.'s announcement today for how they will be allowed to distribute internal applications to the device, especially if there are hundreds of users.

Several IT managers wanted more from Apple than wired synchronization to a desktop, which requires using iTunes to get access to an application, such as a custom sales force lead generation tool or a parts database.

"Right now, using iTunes to download is fine with us, but when iPhone scales to thousands of units, I want to push software to users wirelessly," said Vivek Kundra, chief technology officer for the District of Columbia. He spoke in a telephone interview after the announcement.

On stage at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, CEO Steve Jobs said that distribution of applications can come in three ways; with use of the coming AppStore and primarily for consumer applications, an enterprise distribution model, and an ad hoc model that can be used by smaller groups, such as students working with a professor.

The enterprise approach basically allows a company to get a digital certificate for a specific enterprise-built application from Apple. Then the enterprise would distribute the application via its LAN to a desktop loaded with the iTunes client, said Bob Borchers, senior director of the iPhone product line. The iTunes synchronization requires connecting the iPhone to a desktop with an iPhone cable.

In March, when the enterprise direction of 2.0 was announced, only the AppStore distribution method was mentioned by Apple. The ad hoc and enterprise approaches were new to IT managers. IPhone 2.0 refers to the significant software update that includes downloading and installing third-party applications.

Kundra was otherwise enthusiastic about the iPhone 2.0 news, and said the $199 price tag is "amazing" and will make the device "a lot more palatable for the enterprise. He is currently beta-testing iPhone 2.0, but could not discuss his progress with it because of a nondisclosure agreement he signed with Apple. He has about 15 iPhones, first generation, and believes he could deploy 1,000 2.0 iPhones at some point, with many more thousands in coming years.

Meanwhile, Manjit Singh, CIO of Chiquita Brands International, is not conducting a beta test and has expressed concerns about how Apple would want to control IT operations.

"I still have similar issues, as with 1.0," he said via e-mail. "I don't want to be carrier-locked [to AT&T], and I don't want to be forced to distribute apps via iTunes. What if my enterprise needs to develop my own app? It won't be realistic to need Apple's permission to have it hosted on iTunes to make it accessible."

Although Apple has made the iPhone more enterprise-friendly, "it still isn't quite there in terms of encouraging enterprises to abandon investments in [BlackBerry maker Research In Motion] or Windows Mobile and replace them with iPhone."

One IT manager for a major U.S corporation who asked not to be named said that today's news on the enterprise distribution model did not go far enough in offering an enterprise flexibility because of it requires delivery of applications via iTunes. "From an enterprise standpoint, that feature has a ways to go," the official said.

Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc., said Apple deserved credit for many stunning new features with iPhone 2.0, including the $199 price, but he focused specifically on the application distribution problem mentioned by IT managers.

"A lot of corporations will adopt iPhone 2.0 through their IT shops, but a lot will not adopt it widely and just allow usage for access to e-mail," Dulaney said. He said he was hoping for more details from Apple.

Still, Dulaney said the overall concept of 2.0 is "impressive" and signals the beginning of a "whole new generation" of changes to mobile computing.

Borchers said that some large businesses may end up using the AppStore to allow users to get access to certain applications, but he didn't provide details on which applications those might be. Regarding the ad hoc approach, Borchers gave the example of a group of around 100 students working with a professor to share an application that they would send to each other via e-mail. He didn't offer any other details, however.

Apple's Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone 3G.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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