Despite major challenges, third-party developers find the potential market for enterprise applications on the iPhone irresistible. Even before Apple announced a software development kit (SDK), companies began testing ways to improve the iPhone's business capabilities and security.
Before last month's big announcement, when Apple laid out a roadmap for critical enterprise features, several companies had begun tentatively testing ways to offer an improved experience or more secure solution. Legions of "iExecutives" had already begun demanding the device and their business applications on it, no questions asked, even if that meant utilising workarounds like protocol translation or the web browser to provide them.
As Apple releases more details about its future plans, the enterprise pace is likely to quicken, analysts and industry insiders say.
"Will this be the platform that captures enterprise developers? That's an open issue because the SDK is in beta right now," said market research analyst Avi Greengart. "Are we going to see a lot of them enter and try to add value? Yes."
That's a big departure from how Apple has positioned the iPhone, primarily as a consumer device held under tight rein by Apple's Cupertino headquarters. Various attempts to run third-party iPhone applications have been countered by Apple software updates that regularly break phones running unauthorised programs.
That grey market cat-and-mouse game might be nearing an end now that Apple has provided some information about what it will and won't support in the enterprise, and already some tentative steps are being made to fill the gaps.
Sybase iAnywhere, for example, has announced a suite of tools available later this month that will help bridge the gap between the iPhone's current email offering and popular enterprise choices like Lotus Domino and Microsoft Exchange even before the company can develop a native application for the device. Sybase iAnywhere tools work by installing a hardened middleware appliance that translates protocols midstream while offering security extras like attachment stripping so that a company's financials aren't grabbed along with the executive's shiny new toy.
"At the time [of launch], there were a lot of [scepticism] about whether this phone was targeted at the enterprise ... but looking at the features, people are very excited about it," said Senthil Krishnapillai, director of product management for Sybase iAnywhere. "If you look at the SDK announcement last week, it validated the direction we're headed."
Sybase was also able to leverage a lot of the existing tools it uses to provide secure access to a variety of other phones, in order to give the iPhone a security boost. It is also using the iPhone's browser to provide secure mobile access to corporate directories.
Krishnapillai said Sybase began developing for the iPhone because of strong demand from its customers, particularly among upper executives switching from BlackBerry phones. While the BlackBerry platform was built from the ground up with security in mind, he said the iPhone still had several major holes, particularly in terms of on-device encryption. Apple has taken some steps to fix this, "but we'll have to see what that translates to," he said.
Off the starting blocks
Now many companies that had been using workarounds are ready to dive head first into third-party iPhone application development. "This is our first step on bringing the iPhone into the enterprise," Krishnapillai said. "With the SDK we are looking at a client that can be installed within the iPhone to access calendar, email and other contacts [securely]."
There still remains a number of questions about how tight iPhone security will be and how enterprise customers will get applications onto the iPhone. Many companies are also waiting to see whether Apple will break its single carrier agreement with AT&T. Despite these questions, developers still seem eager to create and offer third-party iPhone applications for the enterprise.
"As a platform, does the iPhone have legs? Yes," said Greengart. "And that's new, because that's not what Apple was talking about six months ago."