Apple's iPhone – Could it really have a place in business?

Apple's mobile handset, announced recently as the iPhone, has a strong consumer attraction but does it have any place in the enterprise?

Apple's mobile handset, announced recently as the iPhone, has a strong consumer attraction, playing on the demand for music tracks and a wide screen for video playback, with Web browsing and Wi-Fi for the mobile Internet. A human interface design that moves away from today's keypad, with its annoyingly smaller and smaller keys, makes smartphone progress. It may not be quite as revolutionary as some people think, however. The first iTunes-compatible mobile phone was the less-than-successful Motorola ROKR model, and the first to ship with just a touch-screen and no keypad was a design from Korea's LG.

But just what is there for the business user here? A quick features briefing for the business user may be useful for IT managers, who will be besieged by requests for this neat product when it surfaces around June.

iPhone - Problems for the business user
Not only is this a new operating system to support (some version of Mac OS X with a new GUI) but the maximum memory today is just 8GB of non-expandable storage for everything from tunes to new applications. The only option here is the cheaper 4GB model. Any new applications that could help the business user -- verticals for the financial or insurance sectors, for instance -- must be shoehorned into this, and the iPhone has no slot for a memory card.

Perhaps the lack of storage reflects Apple's typical approach – buy a neat box from us, but it is fairly closed system, and we can control the consumer experience. It also reflects the fact that Apple may not really be considering the business market, where the successful smartphone becomes a handheld computing platform for third-party applications and not just a feature-phone with email.

For third-party developers, support announced so far has not been very development friendly. This is a problem for business users because without a software development kit (SDK) -- none announced so far -- business user add-on software and verticals will appear only slowly. There is no support yet for Java or Flash. Even the microprocessor seems to be a mystery, although there are rumors that the CPU is made by Samsung -- or Intel -- but whether to its own or an industry-standard ARM design is not clear. Overall, this means that it will not be easy to add a suite of applications that connect remote users into the key line-of-business applications and databases inside the company, except for fairly primitive networking. Email and Web access may be about it. Mac OS X has several development frameworks, such as Carbon and CoCoa, as well as open source tools that could be used in a development system for the iPhone, but there is no real news on this so far.

Also, Apple has many applications in its desktop world that it could transfer to the mobile world, but they are not included -- yet -- perhaps to avoid upsetting the mobile operators. One is Apple's iChat, which could provide a lower-cost chat-messaging service than SMS.

On the connectivity side, this is a 2.5G phone with quad-band GSM, and although using EDGE for data transfer and Wi-Fi may be good enough for many business users today, it would need HSDPA, meaning a 3G mode, to be a really useful handheld for the nomadic worker.

Running a Mac OS X version might also have certain security implications, though it should be less vulnerable than current smartphone operating systems because it is not so well known. Problems here could include potential misuse of wireless connectivity and Apple-targeted malware.

More immediately, Apple has chosen an exclusive carrier deal, with Cingular, to distribute it for the first two years. This seems to be an "interesting" channel strategy because it limits the market, especially business usage. It is rather like saying we will sell TVs through only one department store, one that covers only certain geographic markets. The outcome is really a consumer strategy, aimed at those who do not travel much.

To encourage business applications, Apple would have to change its strategy with an explicit support framework for developers -- not just an SDK but also an application approvals program for new software (and hardware) products to check compatibility at the processor and network levels. Apple has never been keen on licensing its operating systems, and this strategy seems to apply to the whole iPhone.

In summary, Apple has built a closed machine, taking the line that the customer does not want an open platform for the phone. To underline the closed strategy, Apple has even noted that an open platform could cause the network to go down if an application on the iPhone crashes. This may be possible, but worldwide it has happened rarely and only through malicious intent using many phones. It has never happened in the U.S. with the current set of smartphones.

About the author: Simon Forge applies more than 20 years of experience in information industries to his current projects in telecommunications and computing, specifically exploring new wireless and computing technologies and potential futures, outcomes and strategies for markets, products, companies, countries and regions. Previously, he was Director of IT Development for Consumer and Business Products for Hutchison 3G UK, managing creation of software applications for third-generation mobile products, covering the whole range of multimedia products. He has also managed a wide range of teams and assignments – from acting as interim Director of IT Development for the largest utility in the U.K., to developing one of the largest B2B e-commerce trading systems in Europe, to bringing 19 disparate acquisitions together with a unified business architecture, customer management system and billing system for a European telecommunications company. Forge has a PhD in digital signal processing, as well as an MSC and BSc in Control Engineering, all from the University of Sussex, U.K. He is a Chartered Engineer and M.IEE and sits on the editorial board of the Journal Info.

About Ptak, Noel & Associates
With a belief that business success and IT success are inseparable, Ptak, Noel & Associates works with clients to identify, understand and respond to the implications of today's trends and innovations on the future of IT operations.

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