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Despite hurdles, mobile developers eager to build iPhone applications

Despite a number of obstacles, developers are eager to tackle enterprise iPhone applications and get the device work-ready.

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 Cupertino, Calif.-based 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 utilizing 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 Avi Greengart, research director for market research firm Current Analysis Inc. "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 unauthorized programs.

That gray 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.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if [Apple] came out with their version of the iPhone Mini or iPhone Shuffle ... Then they could start shipping within the tens of millions of devices.
Hal Steger
vice president of marketingFunambol

"At the time [of launch], there were a lot of [skepticism] 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.

Azaleos Corp., which provides managed Microsoft Exchange services, is also banking on successful adoption of the iPhone in the enterprise, particularly now that Apple has licensed Microsoft's ActiveSync protocol.

"Azaleos received a lot of inquiries from our customers saying, 'We have a couple of execs with iPhones, can you hook that up to the network?'" said Scott Gode, Azaleos' vice president of marketing. "Now that the iPhone is embracing the ActiveSync protocols … we can do that without creating a new product."

Gode warned that current techniques to synchronize enterprise email on the iPhone should be last resorts, and users should be warned of the pitfalls: no built-in encryption, no password protection, no remote device wipe, no push email.

Those barriers will hopefully be erased come summer when Apple's iPhone version 2 is expected to drop. Before the announcement, all bets were off in terms of enterprise support from Apple.

"We didn't know what to expect, to be honest," Gode said. "We heard rumors like everyone else."

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]."

Funambol Inc., headquartered in Redwood City, Calif., provides a push email client and other mobile features to service providers and OEMs. It is devoting about 10% of its staff to iPhone application development, according to Hal Steger, vice president of marketing for the company. He said iPhone and BlackBerry support are two key devices IT organizations are looking to support, and the former might overtake its more established competition in a little over a year.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all if [Apple] came out with their version of the iPhone Mini or iPhone Shuffle," Steger said. "Then they could start shipping within the tens of millions of devices."

That's a market that would be hard for any mobile developer to ignore. Currently, Apple has sold a little under 4 million iPhones.

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."

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