Apple gets iPhone 3G right for business

An abundance of new features carries iPhone 3G and iPhone 2.0 into the enterprise

I am very impressed with Apple's radiolocation. It contracted Skyhook for the original iPhone, and I never gave that solution its due. To oversimplify, Skyhook war-drives around and captures signatures of surrounding Wi-Fi and cellular networks. Phones without GPS can mark their location by matching the radio signature where you're standing with Skyhook's database. In city limits, Google Maps can do a surprisingly good job of finding you without GPS.

Of course, iPhone 3G adds GPS, and the result is a three-radio location scheme called A-GPS. Apple pulls in Skyhook Wi-Fi and cell tower signatures, overlaps GPS data, and decides which of these sources is most trustworthy before passing your location to Google Maps, your browser, or a custom application. It's brilliant.

Not of one cloth

In most regards, comparing iPhone to QWERTY devices built for professionals is not an overlapping-feature-set affair. There is a lot of give and take, good news and bad news, for each device. For example, BlackBerry is the crown prince of push messaging, working just like a pager. iPhone can't live up to BlackBerry's definition of "push," measured in milliseconds, but BlackBerry is lousy at dealing with big messages and rich attachments. Apple's push strategy for iPhone users not running Exchange Server is still feeling its way, but Apple's got the rich-attachment thing down cold.

RIM is working on rich attachments, just like Apple's working on push, but if you had to choose a device based on present features (and that's how it works), you'd have to decide whether you want the first fragment of your e-mail message instantly or it's worth a potential 15-minute wait to read a rich attachment. I can come up with a nearly endless list of trade-offs.

Another excellent give and take example is found in the browser: Apple wins hands down for readability and controls, but iPhone lacks, and likely will always lack, Java and Flash. On the other hand, no mobile device can touch iPhone for AJAX content. iPhone was made for AJAX, and the Safari browser evolves faster than others.

Who comes out on top? It likely depends on whether you're dependent on existing Java MIDP software. If you have the option of fresh development, the iPhone SDK might have an answer, or it might not. I can't say, because the iPhone SDK is under complete non-disclosure. I was quoted in the public portion of the Worldwide Developer Conference keynote, so I'll stretch my neck out and tell you that there isn't a better mobile development platform, toolset, or documentation set than iPhone's. It's foolish of Apple to keep people from writing about it.

Stay tuned

I'll continue to work with my iPhone 3G and report on my experiences. But for now, I'll say that the iPhone 3G is probably the best US$199 smartphone on the market. It shines in rich documents, over-the-air sync, direct connectivity with Exchange Server, and AJAX applications. iPhone's trump card is usability. You can drop an iPhone on the desk of a person who's never seen one before, and they'll be working it within the hour. The typing takes getting used to, but it is leagues better in iPhone 2.0 than on the original iPhone. Most of all, you can actually read the thing. Text and graphics are as clear as on any desktop, and Apple always fills the screen.

I suppose I'd be remiss if I failed to mention that an iPhone is also an iPod. AT&T may not want you to hit iTunes with the iPhone 3G, but podcasts, video clips, and PowerPoint decks are within easy reach. But I wouldn't advise downloading such files over the air if you're not on a business rate plan. AT&T will charge consumers with per-kilobyte overages or flip them into metered data plans if they exceed unspecified transfer limits. Surprise! Business customers are more likely to get a call from their rep if volume becomes a problem.

If you have existing mobile applications that rely on Java, Flash, or .Net, or if you have server-side applications that use BlackBerry Enterprise Server, iPhone's not for you. There's no way to get from any of these to iPhone. Whatever custom mobile solution you have now would have to be reconceived as AJAX or iPhone-native software, or as a client/server solution with an AJAX front end.

But if you're not constrained by your currently deployed mobile software, give the iPhone 3G a trial run. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, on the whole, the iPhone 3G clears the bar for professional and enterprise use, and in some ways, sets a higher one.

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