Despite the 3G iPhone's reputation as a consumer device, mobile managers are finding that they can make it work as an enterprise smartphone.
Bruce Blitch, CIO of Tessenderlo Kerley Inc., a Phoenix-based manufacturer of fertilizers and pesticides, said he and his senior IT staff have been test-driving the new iPhone since its release two weeks ago. He's ready to switch his company over from the Windows Mobile-based HTC handsets that his sales and engineering staff have been using the last few years.
Blitch said he plans to announce a new policy, wherein any employees who need a smartphone refresh will receive an iPhone instead of an HTC device, as long as no one finds any "show stoppers" as his iPhone pilot winds down.
"I don't think I'm going to get any argument from users," Blitch said. About one-third of his company's 500 employees have company-issued mobile devices, he said. Some employees, such as truck drivers, use simple cell phones, but the majority use the HTC devices and will eventually be using iPhones.
The 3G iPhone has made many skeptics into believers. Some analysts and mobile managers had concerns about security and the lack of compatibility with email applications like Microsoft Exchange in the first-generation iPhone.
"I was not a big fan of the original iPhone," said Bill Hughes, principal analyst at research firm In-Stat. "But I think they addressed many of my concerns with the 3G iPhone."
Hughes said he didn't like the closed platform of the original iPhone. In order for a smartphone to succeed in the enterprise, users must be able to download third-party applications. Apple has addressed that issue with the software development kit (SDK) it launched earlier this year and the App Store, Apple's iTunes-like online marketplace for third-party applications.
Hughes said there are still a few fundamental issues that Apple must address with the iPhone before he can fully endorse it as enterprise-ready. The first problem is the battery, which is sealed into the device.
"The fact that a user or even a company can't replace the battery without having to send it in to Apple -- how is that going to work, if employees don't have their phones for a week?" he said.
The iPhone's inability to run applications in the background is also a serious issue, Hughes said. In order to launch a new application, users must close out the application they are currently using. There is no going back and forth from one to another.
Hughes is still waiting for AT&T and Apple to enable enterprises to download custom applications onto the iPhone. Right now, applications must be approved by Apple before they can be installed, and they can be installed only through the App Store. A company that invests $500,000 in a custom mobile application will not want it sitting on the App Store, where any of its competitors can download it.
Avi Greengart, research director for mobile devices at Current Analysis, said 3G iPhone adoption is generally coming from the top down.
"I'm hearing a lot of IT managers telling me that their corporate executives are telling them that they want corporate support of the iPhone," Greengart said. "When I talk to people, the response I get from most IT managers – and this is very anecdotal – is that [they're] definitely looking at it."
Blitch didn't cite any pressure from above as an impetus for his decision. He said the transition to the iPhone was his call. He was drawn to the device's engineering, particularly the interface, the browser and the improvements Apple made with the 3G release.
He said his company will be using the iPhone for basic messaging, calendaring, contact management and Web browsing. The company sees the value in enabling mobile employees to do those tasks on the road with a smartphone, whether they're answering email, checking their flight status or booking another flight. He said the iPhone is ideally suited for those tasks.
"It's a beautiful piece of engineering that will allow them to work better while living on the road," Blitch said.
Eventually, he would like to offer his mobile employees access to enterprise applications on their handsets.
"We're an SAP shop, and it would be useful in many instances, particularly for the salespeople, to be able to get SAP on the iPhones," Blitch said. "There are a lot of ways to skin that cat. The least amount of effort would be to Web-enable our SAP apps, and having a big screen and a big browser with the iPhone makes that a lot easier."
Greengart said he has been very impressed with the iPhone since he started testing it nearly two weeks ago. Apple has made the transition from Windows Mobile to the iPhone seamless and has posted plenty of information on its website to ease the process along, he said.
The changes Apple introduced with the 3G iPhone make it more suitable for enterprise adoption. "[But] it still depends on what kind of enterprise you're in," Greengart said. The Exchange ActiveSync that Apple offers isn't secure enough for companies that need to comply with strict regulations such as HIPAA.
"Finally, the battery life on the Apple 3G iPhone is just awful," he said. "It's not so much that the battery life is worse than the original. But because I can pull email in the background and because I can do other applications, I'm doing more with it than I was with the original. That means my battery is dying on me, on average, in the late afternoon."
Greengart said other device manufacturers that run into battery life trouble often solve the problem by giving their customers a second battery with purchase. That isn't possible with the iPhone because Apple has sealed it into the device.
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor