iPhone in the enterprise: Can it replace a BlackBerry?

How will the iPhone fit in the enterprise? We challenged our expert to put the iPhone through a series of tests to see how well it integrates, whether it's manageable, and whether its email, calendar and contact features can replace a BlackBerry.

A number of my clients were interested in the Apple iPhone long before the launch. They wanted to know whether the new device would be able to work with Windows XP, Outlook and Microsoft Exchange. In the weeks since iPhone's launch, I've put it through a series of tests to see how well it can integrate, whether it's at all manageable, and whether its email, calendar and contact features can replace a BlackBerry.

Since the iPhone is essentially an iPod, Apple's iTunes software is the home base for activation, configuration and syncing with iTunes content and personal information managers on a computer. For several generations, iTunes has supported synchronizing of contacts and calendars to the iPod. The new iTunes 7.3 extends this support to include the sync of email account information to the iPhone. At the same time, it removes the ability to sync notes and drops the disk-mode features that allowed the use of an iPod as a hard drive.

Despite the iPhones's built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, all synchronization takes place over a USB cable. Wi-Fi is used only for Internet and email access. Bluetooth works only to connect to a headset. There is no support for the Bluetooth profiles that would allow disk access or wireless sync, and my attempts to pair the iPhone with a computer failed.

Once I activated the iPhone through iTunes, I configured it to sync to my Outlook contacts and calendar. I have a number of subfolders in my contacts that help me manage lots of groups of people from different data sources. iTunes would let me choose only the top-level contacts folder for sync, and it didn't see the contents of subfolders. Even though I selected only one email account (my Exchange account), iTunes sent all of my email accounts to the iPhone. I had to manually disable the unwanted email accounts on the iPhone.

Syncing calendars and contacts worked as expected with Outlook. Changes replicated without incident, and I was able to sync thousands of contacts and months of calendar items with ease. New items created on the iPhone ended up in the right place after a subsequent sync over the USB cable.

Completely missing from the iPhone is the ability to manage multiple calendars and meeting invitations. Since there's no over-the-air sync of calendar items, invitations need to be dealt with on the desktop before they reach the iPhone. Tasks and notes do not sync either, which leaves a huge gap for those who rely on task lists to get work done.

Email every 15 minutes
The Exchange 2003 server I tested worked flawlessly for sending and receiving email over standard IMAP and SMTP ports. The server was already configured for IMAP access, so nothing needed to be changed at the server side to support the iPhone. I set the iPhone to check email every 15 minutes (this is the shortest interval available), and I left the volume turned up so I would (hopefully) hear some indicator that a new message had arrived. But soon after I started using the iPhone, co-workers complained that I was much less responsive to email. Responding right away is not the same as responding within 15 minutes. I actually started to miss the BlackBerry's blinking light that told me I had new messages waiting.

Managing a fleet of iPhones
Apple has made no effort to make this first iPhone manageable. There is no over-the-air provisioning, and there is no way to push down settings or policies. There is no remote kill.

Most users won't turn on the security passcode if they don't have to, so information on the iPhone is not protected in the event of loss or theft. Setting up iPhones requires a local copy of iTunes, so setup has to take place at a user's desk, logged in as the user.

Is there hope for enterprise integration?
Apple did a very good job in managing the hype around iPhone. Apple CEO Steve Jobs never demoed the calendar features, and the PIM features are barely mentioned in any of the iPhone's marketing. Apple has positioned the iPhone first and foremost as an iPod, Internet device and phone. The PIM features are a nice extra, and they feel that way. Contacts work well in the phone application, but it's striking that there's no button for Contacts on the main iPhone screen.

The day before the iPhone launch, Visto announced that it will ship a product in Q3 that it claims will support both Exchange and Lotus Notes email with end-to-end security for email. Given the lack of a development environment for the iPhone and the lack of an announcement from Apple, I wish them luck.

Since this is literally iPhone 1.0, I expected bugs. The iPhone is a very nice phone, with great phone features and a beautiful interface that makes it very easy to manage calls and access a huge list of contacts on the go. But it is not a BlackBerry replacement in this incarnation, and users expecting it to be will be disappointed.

Setting iPhone expectations

  • No over-the-air sync or provisioning
  • IMAP email is not real time
  • Missing Tasks and Notes
  • No visual email notification

About the author: Rik Ahlberg is a principal and co-founder of Empiric Partners, LLC, a proactive technology management firm focused on clients with highly mobile professionals who have little patience for downtime.

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