Sanity check: How much will the iPhone impact IT and business users?

Although the iPhone is primarily a consumer electronic device, it will likely be adopted by plenty of business users and could have a larger impact on mobile computing for both consumers and enterprise users, as TechRepublic's Jason Hiner explains.

Issue: iPhone impact on the enterprise

Make no mistake, the iPhone is a consumer electronics product. It's an uber-phone aimed at digital enthusiasts who want to use their phone to have a better Internet and computing experience on the go. Of course, no one wants and needs a better mobile computing experience than business users. That's why the iPhone could quickly spill over to have a significant impact on businesses.

Many businesses and IT departments are already anticipating iPhone requests from employees. In response, Gartner analysts are advising businesses against adopting the iPhone for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Lack of enterprise-level security
  • Lack of support from mobile e-mail providers (BlackBerry and Good)
  • Limited backup options
  • iPhone's $500 price tag
  • Apple's inexperience in delivering enterprise products

In its research note titled "How to Plan for User Interest in the Apple iPhone," Gartner even went so far as to estimate that the total cost of ownership (TCO) of supporting the iPhone will be double the TCO of supporting the BlackBerry or Palm Treo.

Sanity check

Gartner has a few valid points, especially in relation to cost and Apple's lack of focus on the enterprise, but I think several of the other issues are not nearly as critical as Gartner has indicated. Here's my rundown of those issues:

  • Security: All smartphones are a security risk, but I haven't seen anything to indicate that the iPhone is any more risky than a BlackBerry or Treo.
  • Mobile e-mail: Sure, the iPhone won't connect to BlackBerry or Good Mobile Messaging (which connects most Treos), but it looks like Apple will be licensing ActiveSync so that the iPhone can connect to Exchange servers. Since BlackBerry and Good are essentially middleware for connecting to Exchange in most cases, the iPhone would have virtually all the same functionality without the need for BlackBerry or Good servers on the backend.
  • Backup: I doubt that many smartphone users do regular backups or even work on many files that need to be backed up. The only real data that needs to be backed up from most smartphones are contacts, calendar, and messaging, and if the iPhone has Exchange ActiveSync, that will take care of most of that data from a business perspective. Otherwise, the iPhone will have to rely on desktop sync, just as other smartphones do. The one disadvantage the iPhone does have in regard to backup and storage is that it does not have a memory card slot.

I expect iPhone 1.0 to be adopted by plenty of business users, especially if the Exchange ActiveSync rumors are true, but I do not expect to see many IT departments do the kind of widespread corporate adoptions for the iPhone that you see with the Treo or BlackBerry -- at least not yet.

The iPhone will be particularly appealing to to several classes of business users:

  • Entrepreneurs - They often want the latest and greatest.
  • Small office and home office (SOHO) users - They are not tethered to as many incumbent systems.
  • Consultants - They are often free agents and can handle lack of support from a central IT department.
  • Executives - They can force the IT department to make an exception and support an iPhone for them.

However, the biggest impact that the iPhone will have on business and IT is that it will raise the bar on mobile applications, mobile Internet, and mobile computing in general. With its excellent screen, user friendliness, and Web functionality, it is going to raise user expectations and force other vendors to produce better and more functional mobile phones. Plus, we're already seeing software vendors jumping on board to take advantage of the iPhone as a business platform with CRM from Etelos and office applications from Zoho (which has emerged as a leader in online office apps).

All of this points to the arrival of the iPhone as a watershed moment in mobile computing, not just for consumers but for businesses as well. The iPhone is officially ushering in the era of the phone as a mainstream Internet device.