Apps bolster iPhone in business, but AT&T remains an obstacle

I've written often about the iPhone and its delicate dance in the enterprise, but the iPhone's time may have now arrived. Hear why and learn the one big obstacle still holding it back (hint: it's not the keyboard).
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

What a difference a year makes.

TechRepublic has been testing the iPhone since the day the first model launched on June 30, 2007. TechRepublic maintained an account with AT&T as we continued to test the iPhone and consider its use as a business device. After the, we kept the cellular account activated for a couple months.

But, a couple months after the iPhone 3G was released on July 11, 2008, we deactivated the iPhone. We had originally planned to keep it active so that we could cover the business applications from the new iPhone App Store that Apple launched in conjunction with the iPhone 3G.

But, although the iPhone technology itself was very compelling, there just weren't enough useful business apps on the iPhone for TechRepublic to cover it regularly. So we terminated the AT&T contract and turned the iPhone into a Wi-Fi-only device last August.

Fast forward to April 2009. With the announcement of the iPhone 3.0 software in March and the third generation iPhone expected to be unveiled by the middle of 2009, I decided that it was time for TechRepublic to start paying more attention to the iPhone again and to revisit the iPhone App Store to see if there is anything in there to make it more compelling to the corporate world.

So I dug out the iPhone 3G, put it in a Griffin case with a ZAGG InvisibleSheild, loaded a bunch of iPhone apps, and started regularly carrying it as a Wi-Fi device. The timing was good since I've been traveling a lot this spring, so I've been able to test it like a true road warrior.

I've been pretty surprised and impressed. This time around, the iPhone has proven to be far more useful, and it's entirely due to the software.

Apps, for the win

After my eight-month hiatus from the iPhone, it's been great to see the improvement of several important applications and the breadth and quality of new applications in the iPhone App Store. Last year it was a struggle to find anything useful for business users. Now, there's a wealth of good stuff, and I keep finding new apps every week.

Here is a quick look at some of the useful apps I've found (with help from Macworld's iPhone Apps Guide) for business users, especially frequent travelers:

  • Amazon Kindle - This app offers an excellent way to read business books. It even syncs with your Kindle reader, if you have one. I didn't think I'd want to read books on the iPhone screen but this app converted me into a believer.
  • BizExpense - Track business and travel expenses.
  • QuickOffice - Lets you view and edit Word and Excel files.
  • mbPointer - This apps allows you to control PowerPoint presentations with the iPhone.
  • Taxi Magic - Use iPhone's GPS chip to help you find a local cab company.
  • FedEx Mobile - Easily track your FedEx packages.
  • Mileage Bug - Track your mileage on business trips.
  • Bloomberg - This offers a lot more financial market information than the iPhone's native Stocks application. AOL Daily Finance is another good alternative.
  • MoneyWatch Mobile - This provides access to articles and videos with practical financial advice from CBS MoneyWatch.com (both MoneyWatch and TechRepublic are owned by CBS)
  • Wall Street Journal - This standard bearer of financial news and analysis has a very usable iPhone application that includes multimedia.
  • Tweetie - I've written about the business potential of Twitter. There are lots of iPhone Twitter applications, but Tweetie is the one that acts most like the Twitter site.
  • Yammer - For those who want a mini Twitter experience limited to internal employees, Yammer is a great solution and it includes a nice iPhone app.

There are tons of other business applications that are worth a look, including Citrix Receiver, Cisco Webex Meeting Center, Salesforce.com, Traffic View, remote desktop apps, file management and syncing apps, database access apps, and to-do list apps. There's even an app called iTie that shows you the various methods of tying a tie.

For business travelers, the iPhone's Weather application is still very handy since it allows you to quickly flip through multiple cities  to check the highs and lows and basic forecasts. You can now supplement this information with the Weather Channel app for more in-depth forecasts.

Same goes for the iPhone's original World Clock app. I've now gained greater appreciation for this app as I've recently been working with colleagues and contractors in multiple time zones (Australia, U.K., etc.) and this little app allows me to set up favorite cities and then quickly glance at the current time in each time zone. I also discovered that it includes a timer, stopwatch, and alarm clock (which is better than having to wrestle unfamiliar an alarm clock in a hotel room).

I was also impressed with the iPhone's updated software for Exchange syncing. The online/offline syncing of Exchange mail now functions almost identically to Microsoft Outlook in Windows. Google's Gmail app on the iPhone is also much-improved and now functions a lot like Exchange.

From a personal standpoint, there are now a number of apps that make the iPhone even more valuable. And I'm not talking about all of the games. I'm talking about apps that let me do mobile online banking, manage my Netflix queue (PhoneFlix), browse photos from Flickr (Mobile Fotos), and find local movie theaters with the help of GPS (Flixster or Now Playing).

Above all, the iPhone screen and software make it a great viewing and reading device - by the far the best on the market in this category. Even the BlackBerry Storm and T-Mobile G1 (which have similar screens to the iPhone) aren't nearly as good for viewing and reading. That's because of the software - both Apple's own iPhone OS and third party applications such as Kindle.

I've gotten to the point where I usually prefer to read my mail (both Exchange and Gmail) on the iPhone, but then hop over to my BlackBerry to send replies. That's not super-convenient but it takes advantage of the strengths of the two devices.

My other motivation

There is another motivation that I've had for trying out the iPhone 3G over Wi-Fi. I'm looking to purchase a personal smartphone by July and I'll probably choose between the upcoming Palm Pre or the third generation iPhone.

I regularly go on the road for conferences and business meetings and when I travel my smartphone is my primary computing device. I have a BlackBerry Curve 8320 from T-Mobile that is my company phone. It handles my phone calls, SMS, Exchange mail, and calendar. When I'm on the road, it's like a personal assistant that tells me where to go, how to get there, who to talk to, and gives me notes on the important points I need to remember.

However, if it ever runs out of batteries or breaks then I'm in serious trouble, because it has all my scheduled meetings, contacts, and travel itineraries. So I need some redundancy (that's my IT background speaking). While I'm often testing one or two smartphones that I carry with me on the road, they don't really give me enough consistency to rely on. I need a regular backup.

The Curve is also very weak in Web browsing and as a media player, so I'd like my backup smartphone to perform those two functions - so that I don't have to carry an iPod - while also serving as my backup for Exchange mail, contacts, and calendar.

The trouble with the iPhone is ... AT&T

So it probably sounds like I'm convinced to get the iPhone, doesn't it? Actually, I'm not. I still have one major reservation, and it's not the keyboard (as I wrote last year), it's that to get the iPhone in the U.S. the only carrier is AT&T.

Over the last five years, I have used smartphones on all four major U.S. carriers - Treo 650 on Verizon, Treo 700p on Sprint, BlackBerry Curve on T-Mobile, and iPhone on AT&T - and I've traveled across the U.S. with all four of them. Verizon provided the best and most consistent performance. Sprint and T-Mobile were both serviceable. AT&T was by far the worst.

The performance of the iPhone on AT&T has been so bad that there's a pending class action lawsuit against Apple over the flaky coverage and performance.

My colleague Molly Wood, executive editor at CNET, is a frustrated San Francisco iPhone user whose experience sums up a lot of the complaints I've heard:

"I've found my AT&T connectivity on the iPhone to be the worst I've had with a cell phone provider. I'm not sure if it's the iPhone itself or AT&T's fragile Bay Area network, but when I'm sitting in my office, the phone tells me it has full bar strength and a 3G signal, but it's a complete lie. If someone calls me, they can't hear a word I'm saying, and that's assuming the phone actually rings. Most of the time I'll be sitting here with it next to me and I'll just get a voicemail notification. At my house in the Oakland hills, I vacillate between a fairly weak EDGE signal, the dreaded 'Searching ...' message, and no service.

I've definitely noticed that the iPhone's radio takes a long time to reconnect to a signal compared to other phones, so it takes a maddeningly long time to get back the weak EDGE bars. There's no chance of using the phone for actual calls at my house, so I upped my texting plan even though getting a text through is often an exercise in running out to the deck to try to get back the signal that I just dropped.

In sum, I'm paying for minutes I can't use at work or at home, I'm paying the ludicrous sum of $15 a month for 1500 text messages in the vain hope that I can inconsistently communicate with someone in the outside world sometimes, and I'm also paying for a land line because my service is so unreliable. Between that and having to use iTunes and the locked-down nature of the iPhone overall, you'd better believe I'm ready to switch to first promising phone I find, and I might not even wait for the contract to end!"

Another frustrated iPhone user in the Bay Area was GigaOm editor Om Malik. On Feb. 11, 2009, Om Malik dropped his iPhone and wrote about the experience:

"Earlier this morning, after enduring days and days of dropped calls and errant network behavior, I quit on my iPhone. It wasn't an easy decision, but it had to be done. I depend almost exclusively on my mobile phone for my communications. Whether it be surfing the web, checking email, sending text messages or talking - my mobile is the center of my daily existence.

That being said, AT&T's network just wasn't cutting it for me... Over the past few days, my iPhone was spending ungodly stretches of time "searching" for the network... The static, the dropped calls and above all the shoddy call quality were enough to raise my blood pressure... The only feature that worked flawlessly: SMS.

I love my iPhone - but AT&T's network has failed me... Anyway this morning, while conducting a phone interview, the call dropped on me twice. Enough was enough. A few minutes later, I went to T-Mobile's company store and got myself a BlackBerry Curve 8900 for email and SMS. I also signed up for a plain-vanilla voice service from Verizon Wireless...Is this an ideal solution? Probably not - but living with spotty service isn't worth the trouble."

The iPhone's poor performance on AT&T is not limited to the Bay Area. I've heard the same stories and experienced some of the same problems in my home base in the Midwest. And it even extends to the business capital of the world, New York City.

My CNET colleague Natali Del Conte in New York explains, "Living in Manhattan, I drop 3G connection when I'm moving around the city. It is pretty impossible to connect to my favorite apps... Even email is unreliable. I am crossing my fingers that 4G or the next gen iPhone software will fix this because it is just so frustrating. What is the point of so many great apps if they just keep pooping out on me?"

This kind of flakiness just doesn't cut it for a business phone. As Tony Peric of PreThinking.com wrote, "I left Sprint for the iPhone and switched back after a few days later when the iPhone crashed on me three times in one day. It is my business phone and I couldn't afford to lose calls and messages."

Bottom line

The iPhone has evolved from a breakthrough touch screen device to an extremely powerful information tool. Over the past year I've written and spoken numerous times that although the iPhone was impressive, it was highly overhyped. However, with all of the momentum building around its App Store, the iPhone is finally turning into a device that has enough substance to go with all of its style.

Unfortunately, if it remains an AT&T exclusive and AT&T doesn't get its act together and fix its network, the iPhone's great apps may not be enough for me to jump on the bandwagon. And I think many businesses and IT departments will feel the same way.

I am loving the iPhone apps even just using them over Wi-Fi, and I'd love to be able to access them anytime, anywhere. But I'm not willing to pay AT&T over a $1,000/year for spotty service. If the iPhone were on Verizon Wireless, it would be a slam dunk for me. But since the iPhone is stuck on AT&T, I may go with the Palm Pre instead.

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