Apple gets iPhone 3G right for business

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

With the iPhone 3G's banner opening weekend and newsstands looking like a rack of brochures for the device, a review of the iPhone 3G at this point might be pro forma, except for one thing: Much of the iPhone 3G and the new iPhone 2.0 software remains an enigma to professionals and enterprises, users set apart by, among other things, their tendency to use punctuation in their e-mail. These users demand more from a handset than a cellular browser and YouTube.

With mature and well-established QWERTY devices from HTC, Motorola, Nokia, Palm, and Research in Motion known to be capable of handling the needs of serious users, the iPhone 3G needs to be weighed against alternatives using existing professional and enterprise-targeted handsets to set the bar. As you may recall, I judged the original 2007 iPhone to fall far short of professional standards. The iPhone was too expensive to be missing so much.

This time around, there are two new products under discussion. One is the iPhone 3G, Apple's pair of new 8GB and 16GB phone models (which cost US$199 and $299, respectively, for AT&T customers who agree to a two-year contract) that deliver ActiveSync, Assisted GPS (A-GPS), and 1Mbps 3G cellular data. The other product is the iPhone 2.0 software, Apple's new iPhone firmware and related apps. iTunes 7.7 or later will update existing iPhones and iPod Touches to the 2.0 for free. After that's done, you'll end up with a device that is, except for GPS and 3G, functionally identical to the iPhone 3G. The iPod Touch is also upgradable to iPhone 2.0 firmware for US$9.95.

I've taken to referring to first-gen iPhone and iPhone 3G running iPhone 2.0 software as iPhone, which now identifies a consistently implemented platform in the same manner that Mac covers all Apple client computers. Wherever I refer to iPhone 3G, you'll know that I'm making specific reference to Apple's new handset.

Second time's the charm

Apple has turned iPhone into a mobile platform that I can recommend to professional and enterprise users. I make that recommendation with fair confidence, based on my testing of the iPhone 3G against Apple's claims. Those tests continue, and will for some time. It's my opinion that final judgment about the worthiness of a mobile device can't be rendered until you've trusted your digital identity to it.

Clearly, I haven't had time to carry it that far, but the iPhone 3G and the iPhone 2.0 software meet the expectations set by Apple, and Apple's design and engineering produced a mobile device and platform that hold their own against the likes of Nokia E-Series, RIM BlackBerry, and Windows Mobile 6. In areas where Apple chose to focus its innovation, the iPhone 3G exceeds the capabilities of other devices by a margin that makes it hard to imagine competitors closing the gap.

I judge the iPhone 3G to be among the QWERTY class of messaging/PDA devices because these are professional- and enterprise-targeted handsets, and because whenever input is required, iPhone pops up as close to a full GUI keyboard as will fit on the display. iPhone is, by my lights, a QWERTY device.

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Zero squint factor

For professionals, the PDA features of a handset may be the decider. iPhone's calendar and address book are absolute tops for ease of use, fast access, and readability. The use of spinning slot-machine-like dials to set the time of an appointment is more intuitive than arrows, and it's quicker than typing. Appointments can be separated out by category (for example, "personal" and "office") or pulled together into a single view, in which case the category is reflected in the color of the entry.

Apple makes great use of the tall display and Mac OS X's crisp text rendering. All of the calendar views use the largest type that will fit while still packing as much information onto a single page as possible.

Contacts are listed in a massive bold font. A new search field at the top of the list displays only matching entries, and for rapid scrolling through a large list, there is an alphabetical index tab down the right edge of the screen. Each contact can be assigned its own ring tone and avatar, and you can add custom fields to each entry.

Calendar lacks a key ability: to send calendar invitations via e-mail. But anyone who has permission to do it can place an event on your calendar, and when they do, your iPhone will be updated over the air. If you're linked to Exchange Server, new appointments are sent to you via ActiveSync push, and you can accept or reject an invitation. But you can't send one from iPhone. That's a major flaw.

In the plus category, big time, is a new rich attachment viewer that displays Office, iWork '08 (Apple's productivity suite), PDF, and many flavors of still images inside the Mail app. Using pinch (shrink), spread (zoom), and flick (scroll) gestures, documents that are too large to fit on the display are easier to navigate than on most other devices, and iPhone is surprisingly quick with the document conversion.

A colleague pointed out the shortcoming that non-image attachments can't be saved, sent, or transferred (except in forwarded messages). I'll add that there is no way to create rich documents on iPhone, no equivalent to the mobile office suites on Nokia E-series and Windows Mobile devices. But I expect to see third-party document editors appearing on App Store, Apple's on-line custom iPhone software catalog, soon.

Over-the-air sync

iPhone is a wireless device. You should look at its USB cord as being for charging, backups, firmware updates, and iPod content. For professionals and enterprises, wires will just get in the way.

The Contacts and Calendar apps can sync over the air to several servers including Exchange Server, Apple's MobileMe, Google, and Yahoo. iPhone will sync, through iTunes, to Mac and Windows desktops (Outlook or Outlook Express for Windows, iCal for Mac), but users report mixed experiences with this. I'm not surprised. Doing tethered sync with a device that's optimized to do it over the air -- that's a major win in iPhone 2.0 -- is counterproductive. Sync efforts tend to pull up a lot of false conflicts that must be sorted out manually. It's better to take new events, contacts, and messages as they are posted. The servers that dispatch them are more reliable sources than your desktop.

Apple's MobileMe is billed as "Exchange Server for the rest of us." That's a bit rich, but it does keep multiple iPhone, iPod, and Mac clients in sync, and the AJAX front-ends to the Mail, Calendar, and Address Book are slick. MobileMe syncs Safari browser bookmarks as well. (I haven't tested MobileMe's sync features against Windows.) I wouldn't make MobileMe my sole e-mail server for business use, but I think that the service, which costs US$99 per year, is a necessity for iPhone users.

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Apple equipped iPhone to tap into a proprietary infrastructure, not unlike the one RIM uses for BlackBerry, that pushes mail and PDA updates to iPhone over the air. "Push" is a relative term that's entirely dependent on your software.

iPhone being a consumer device, it typically will be used with low-end mail and scheduling clients that hit the server at timed intervals, or over a hotel or conference center wireless LAN could be using an SMTP proxy that delays delivery. It takes as long as 15 minutes for iTunes to pull an update or message from Outlook or Entourage to Apple's cloud, at which point it finds you within a few seconds. But in an enterprise using Exchange Server and iPhone, push can be taken for granted. Pushing desktop-sized messages is best handled with the iPhone 3G.

Most of what iPhone can do over the cellular network, it can do over Wi-Fi. You can run both networks simultaneously on an iPhone, and the iPod Touch with the iPhone 2.0 firmware makes a great on-campus PDA (too bad that microphones like the Griffin iTalk won't work on it; that'd give you some voice capability when on Wi-Fi networks).

The iPhone 3G is world-compatible, supporting four varieties of GSM and three flavors of UMTS. If you have a contract with a carrier that supports roaming, you can now hop on a plane and expect your iPhone 3G to connect for you when you land.

One drawback with iPhone's Exchange Server support is that each device only supports one user profile. Multiple users wouldn't be sharing one iPhone, but one user might set up different profiles for the various projects he or she is working on. It is possible to add multiple non-Exchange profiles pointing to POP or IMAP servers; I used that technique to work around the single profile issue by creating a secondary IMAP profile for my Exchange Server.

iPhone 3G additions

E-mail with rich attachments that used to be impractical over the AT&T EDGE network are now workable with the iPhone 3G -- provided you're within range of a UMTS tower and your coverage plan includes HSDPA high-speed data. In my metro-area tests, downloads reached as high as around 1 Mbps, and rarely dropped below 700 Kbps. The iPhone 3G will automatically fall back to EDGE when 3G isn't available. You don't lose data access. It just slows down, and if HSDPA comes back into view, it speeds up.

There are catches here: Consumers who expect to stream low-res movies and listen to streaming radio all day will bump into AT&T contract provisions that put limits on unlimited data plans. Apple had to rebrand iTunes for iPhone to a more explicit "iTunes for Wi-Fi," making it plain that AT&T has no interest in having Apple send you movie rentals over its cell network.

For professional users, the sticky wicket is cellular data's horrible latency. During my speed tests, I measured 3G network latency at between 270 and an astonishing 1,100 milliseconds. You'll notice that some pages render faster than others, and that Web sites with lots of little AJAX image buttons can load slowly the first time. Apple's marketing of iPhone as a cellular browser should be taken with a bit of salt. Test Web applications carefully before deployment, and be sure to test the iPhone 3G in an area served only by EDGE. (If you're in EDGE territory, you may be better off with an original iPhone upgraded to the 2.0 software, since you'll pay $10 less per month to AT&T.)

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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.