iPhone 3G poses barriers to business adoption

UK enterprise adoption of the iPhone 3G may be hampered by security issues and Apple's exclusive partnership with O2, among other factors

The iPhone 3G went on sale on Friday, with the launch hype in overdrive, but is the device really going to take the corporate world by storm, as O2 hopes?

O2 claims there's a lot of interest from business — largely because Apple has licensed Microsoft's ActiveSync protocol, so Exchange users will be able to get push email, calendar and contacts on the iPhone. This is why the operator has finally launched iPhone business tariffs. Previously, UK enterprises determined to get the 2.5G iPhone had to sign up to an O2 consumer tariff.

Email is the lifeblood of businesses so Exchange support certainly removes a major barrier preventing many senior executives from clipping iPhones to their belts — provided they can talk their IT department into adding iTunes support to its list of responsibilities.

That's because every iPhone user must have iTunes running on their desktop — not an ideal scenario for some businesses.

So, even if senior executives get their hands on iPhones, the iTunes factor may make some corporates reluctant to push devices out to the rank and file.

Companies may also have misgivings about iPhones being too attractive to thieves, or concerns about using the touchscreen keyboard, which is undoubtedly an acquired taste.

O2 UK has been beta testing the 3G device with 15 corporate customers, including Citigroup, Logica and McDonald's, but has not put a figure on the number of businesses that pre-registered an interest — so the level of genuine interest from business is hard to calculate.

Enterprises looking to play the iPhone game may also be worried about the apparent scarcity of devices. O2 has warned consumer customers intending to purchase an iPhone on Friday that it will only have, on average, a few dozen 3G devices per store and expects to sell out quickly.

And, while O2 said it is making provision for businesses — by ringfencing a separate allocation of iPhones from each stock shipment, which will then be available through its business channels and via a proportion of its B2B partners — this stock is still limited and will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis.

Business customers who wish to buy in store will only be able to buy two devices each (consumers are rationed to one). Corporates buying through O2 Business Sales, or through the operator's B2B reseller partners, are not limited on the number of iPhones they can buy (subject to stock availability).

Of course, the main problem with the iPhone is that companies not doing business with O2 (or its B2B partners) can't adopt the hardware — and are very unlikely to go to the hassle of immediately changing network operator just to get a couple of iPhones. A radical strategy shift from Apple — moving to a multiple-operators model — would be needed before the phone becomes an option for the majority of UK businesses. As it stands, the iPhone's enterprise reach can only go so far.

The operator factor is one of two main reasons why Associated Newspapers, a Vodafone customer, will "unfortunately… not be deploying or supporting iPhones in the near term", according to chief information officer Ian Cohen.

He told ZDNet.co.uk sister site silicon.com that the other big reason the 3G device is not suitable is because his company uses Lotus Notes, rather than Exchange, so push email support is missing. "The closed and proprietary nature of the device means it is unsuitable for our needs," he explained.

So, despite all Apple's enterprise-focused hype — and even if businesses switch to O2 — there are still corporate software barriers to iPhone adoption. Given time, however, as more companies push out iPhone support — and app-makers get busy with the iPhone SDK (software development kit) — things should change.

Security is another issue that could influence enterprise adoption of the iPhone. Analyst Gartner has described the device as having only a "basic level of enterprise security", and specific concerns have been raised about the threat posed by Wi-Fi hackers.

Enterprise infrastructure vendor, Sybase, claimed to have seen an increase in inquiries about its back-end secure mobile email software — which links mobile devices such as the iPhone to corporate systems — from financial and manufacturing logistics companies, for instance.

So what's the verdict for iPhone in the enterprise?

Don't expect Apple's hardware to be flooding into your office overnight. Businesses will want to see answers to a variety of questions and concerns before they decide to walk Apple's way.

That said, it's certain the iPhone — and its app store — has plenty of potential as a business tool, so, in the not too distant future, it will undoubtedly be disrupting a fair few workplaces, and work practices.

As one Mac developer said: "The iPhone is not just a phone — it's a whole new platform for developing consumer and enterprise apps. And I think it's the first truly mobile computing environment where consumers and developers are excited."

"The iPhone is powerful enough to develop useful mobile apps. The interface is great for end users, and the development environment is based on mature technology (the same development environment we've been using on OS X for years)," the developer continued.

He added: "I wouldn't rule out developing for [Google] Android one day but, for now, all eyes are on the iPhone."


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