Opinion: Analyst warnings on iPhone a wrong number

One researcher called it 'a cellular iPod'; companies warned to steer clear

Gartner Inc., IDC and 451 Group research analysts this week warned IT administrators to keep iPhones away from their businesses. "We're telling IT executives to not support it because Apple has no intentions of supporting [iPhone use in] the enterprise," Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney said. "This is basically a cellular iPod with some other capabilities, and it's important that it be recognized as such."

As if that will stop people from buying them when they hit the market in the U.S. next week.

The reality is that no matter how hard IT administrators try, the iPhone will be snapped up by their employees -- and not just the average Joes either. The device is a status symbol that will likely be snapped up by business leaders as the digital technorati. Try telling your CEO the iPhone doesn't play well with your IT systems.

Dulaney and other researchers notwithstanding, this device can be good for companies because of the business needs of smart phone users:

  • It is an iPhone, after all, with an emphasis on phone.
  • It offers e-mail -- currently the most popular means of business communications.
  • There's an address/phone book for quick access to contacts.
  • It offers SMS, a quick way to contact other mobile phone users, and voice mail -- both useful to road warriors.
  • There's a real Web browser -- by far the most underpowered and underappreciated part of a mobile phone.
  • And it contains a slew of corporate-worthy apps, including a calendar, access to maps, spreadsheets and a document reader.

All of these things are important -- and all can be done to a greater or lesser extent on most business-focused PDA phones. But in the business world, the mobile Web browser is the key to the future of business applications, and it is a becoming a platform unto itself. One thing that Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs made abundantly clear at last week's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) is that the iPhone would include a full browser. The Symbian and Linux platforms' best browser is Opera Mini -- which isn't that bad -- but it by no means constitutes a full browser. Windows Mobile's browser isn't bad either, but it also falls well short of Internet Explorer 7. Additionally, the iPhone browser has a lot of zooming and panning tricks that make it more usable on the relatively small screen. In that crucial area, advantage: iPhone.

Why is the browser crucial? Because most new business applications are being built around it. AJAX and other browser technology innovations over the past few years have turned the browser into a veritable platform. Sure, a lot of legacy applications still require browserless, platform-specific client applications. But those days are numbered.

It's not just the isolated applications that are moving to a browser. All of the stalwart office applications are also moving to the Web. With Google Office (which now works with Safari -- the iPhone browser), Soho Office and even Web-centric versions of Microsoft Office applications, the browser is truly the new business platform.

The iPhone is not without its business-use flaws. It doesn't natively sync up with Lotus Notes or Exchange -- and Microsoft, at least, will most likely do everything in its power to try to keep it that way to protect its Windows Mobile business. It can, however, hook up to IMAP e-mail, LDAP address books and WebDav for calendaring; with a bit of tweaking that will work well for Exchange-based companies. Microsoft SharePoint can also be browsed from the Web interface, but to what extent? Time -- and the work of application developers -- will tell. A newly anointed relationship with Cisco on all things iPhone should also let the device into the VPN and might even let an iPhone play well with Cisco voice over IP applications. And, of course, don't forget the arduous task of getting your conservative IT department to accept the idea of letting loose an Apple phone -- or even MacBook Pro -- into the office.

Previews of the phone haven't yet touted an instant messaging client like Apple's iChat or AOL Instant Messenger. It is likely, however, that Apple will include something with instant messaging functionality in the near future; there are still four slots left in the iPhone's application window.

It's also true that the first-generation iPhone isn't the raw specs winner by any stretch. That honor goes to the Symbian/Windows Mobile 6 Phones coming from Toshiba (the G900), Nokia (the N95), Samsung (the F700) and HTC (the Shift).

AT&T's EDGE wireless network is slow by today's standards, and while Wi-Fi connectivity will help, there are questions about why Apple has forsaken the HSDPA/UTMS component and when an update might occur. Given that battery life is a factor, Apple this week released updated specs that go beyond what it touted in January -- EDGE makes sense because it's more energy-efficient.

Also, the 8GB max on storage seems low. At a time when you can buy an 8GB SD card for under $80, Apple likely looked to keep costs down with an eye on upping that storage when it's economically smart. Most users would likely be happy with a micro/mini/SD card slot now standard on most smart phones.

There is, of course, the price. The iPhone's hefty $499 and $599 price tags, depending on which model you buy, is a definite disadvantage in business. With relatively comparable gear (from a corporate standpoint) such as the Motorola Q, which is almost free with a service plan, buying an iPhone requires serious justification. We're talking about spending the equivalent of a budget laptop.

Of course, something that you spend half your day using should justify the premium that this delicious piece of hardware demands.

And then there are at least two intangibles:

  • Usability. Apple's legendary reputation for making painful tasks easy will totally transform the mobile phone industry. And remember, companies love productivity from their workers. Until now, the big players have been Microsoft Windows Mobile, Palm, Symbian and Linux. They all had successes. But it's the last 10% of usability that Apple always manages to squeeze out its products will be the differentiator. Apple did the same in the computer industry until Microsoft caught up. Apple has learned from this and patented every minute detail of the iPhone, making it harder for copycats to appear anytime soon. The few seconds here there that the iPhone saves users will quickly add up. It's the little things that make for big savings across an entire company.
  • Business bling, baby. Everyone knows that this is the phone to have. Just look at the buzz ahead of the June 29 launch. Apple has spent the last few years building up its brand across all channels and is reaping the rewards like no other company in the industry. As much as the corporate IT guys will want to recite better specs for rival Windows Mobile devices, nobody wants to hear that. I can imagine any number of CEOs saying: "I don't care! Just make the iPhone work on our systems!" And if it works for the CEO, you can bet the sales folk will want in on the action, too. Think they'll want to show up to a meeting with an important client and whip out last year's "hot" phone? They might as well wear parachute pants as well.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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