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Is the iPhone a good choice for my business?

With the recent launch of the 3G iPhone, enterprises are wondering if the device is well-suited to business use. IP telephony expert Jon Arnold details the pros and cons of enterprise iPhone usage, from application support to reliability concerns, and discusses how the iPhone stacks up against competitor RIM's Blackberry.

Is the iPhone a good choice for my business?
With the recent launch of the 3G iPhone, this is a good time to address the issue as to whether this is a good device for business use. There are several angles worth exploring here, and they could easily cover a number of ATE columns. As an initial response, I'll cover some high level issues and then some salient points in particular about the new iPhone.

In terms of business use, the iPhone is certainly capable of supporting the standard applications, as is most any smartphone. However, a smartphone is not enough, at least for enterprise use. RIM has become the dominant player for business not just because of the BlackBerry device, but also for its network and how it enables reliable, secure service virtually everywhere. Apple is not a network provider and must partner with carriers in each market it serves. These networks are not dedicated to business traffic, and where security and reliability issues are paramount, they simply cannot match RIM. For SMBs or SOHOs, this will be less important, and this is where I can see the iPhone gaining some market share. However, for larger scale requirements, it will be much more difficult to make the case.

Email is the core BlackBerry application, and requires integration between the RIM server and the enterprise server. To strengthen their value proposition, RIM has aggressively been engaging developers to build third party applications which end users can simply download to their devices. As with all software products, regular upgrades are required, and for international operations, this means providing access and support across many markets. All of these factors require a support organization not just for enterprise IT managers, but end users as well.

Apple is first and foremost a consumer company and this is not a core competency. Furthermore, because the iPhone only operates on GSM, Apple would need to provide support across a number of service provider partners for international enterprise customers, making it difficult to provide a consistent level of support for all end users. And if you're traveling to a market that does not have GSM coverage, you won't be getting your email. Third party applications are another important area, and Apple does not have the same focus on supporting business applications as RIM. Over time, it's hard to see how they will be able to keep pace for offering the kinds of applications that businesses demand.

There are many other angles to explore here, but let's move on to the device itself. The 3G iPhone offers several improvements from the first generation iPhone, and some do bode well for business users. First off, the iPhone is less expensive, making it more attractive compared to a RIM device. Being very feature-rich, this tilts the scales in Apple's favor, and for some, this may trump the issues addressed earlier about the lack of a dedicated network.

Another factor is 3G, which allows the iPhone to now support more advanced applications, especially those that are video-based. This won't have much impact on email, which remains the central application for RIM. So, for businesses that are looking for more of the former than the latter, the iPhone may be the right choice. To be fair, though, this does not reflect the profile of most businesses, so this will likely only hold for a certain niche in the market.

It must be understood, however, that 3G is not ubiquitous in the U.S., and is dependent solely on AT&T's coverage. As such, the benefits of 3G will not yet be available to all subscribers. Furthermore, where 3G is available, there is an important trade-off to consider. 3G provides much faster connectivity than AT&T's EDGE network, but it drains the battery twice as quickly. If your end users are on the road extensively and rely heavily on network access, the iPhone has some practical limitations. Aside from the battery draining faster with 3G, the iPhone battery is not removable, so users cannot carry a spare to swap out while on the go. This is not an issue for other smartphones like BlackBerry, Palm or Nokia, and could be an important consideration.

While the new iPhone is a better value price-wise than its predecessor, and has improved audio quality, it still lacks some important features that regular BlackBerry users take for granted. The most important difference of course is the touch screen, which is not for everybody. Many users report they adapt quickly, but the ease of use of a QWERTY keyboard is hard to beat. A few other items of note include limited GPS, lack of Bluetooth support and no voice-based dialing. Users of the more advanced RIM devices – namely the Curve and upcoming Bold models – will not likely feel lacking compared to the new iPhone. And for those who want to embrace the touch screen interface, the BlackBerry Thunder will soon be coming to market.

As such, just considering the device, the iPhone can do most of what a BlackBerry can do, so feature-for-feature it's reasonably comparable. However, the iPhone's appeal is consumer-centric, and is based more around creating a great mobile Internet experience than being a productivity enabler for business users. It is hard to see how established BlackBerry users would migrate wholesale to the iPhone, but I could definitely see how certain types of enterprises going down this road for the first time might go with the iPhone.

However, for most enterprises, the underlying RIM network will be just as important in the overall consideration. On that count the iPhone does not measure up, at least today. Once Apple masters the consumer market with 3G capability, I would not rule out their taking additional steps to create an enterprise-class solution that could compete more directly with RIM. Until that time comes, though, I don't see the iPhone gaining much business traction beyond the SOHO or SMB markets.

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