Making the iPhone a killer business device

The device has potential, but Apple needs to meet corporate needs

Apple needs to develop some sort of enterprise licensing scheme, one that allows an organization to make bulk purchases of iPhone applications, either in a volume- or site-licensing format. Ideally, this would also include a way to distribute the applications to all the iPhones owned by a company.

Apple does have some options. It allows ad hoc and enterprise distribution of applications created by developers through the use of provisioning profiles that let applications run -- even if they weren't purchased from the App Store. The problem isn't technical here; it's the payment and licensing issues across a spectrum of potential iPhone developers that could be the stumbling block.

Interestingly enough, licensing for FMTouch, an iPhone FileMaker Pro solution, is available for enterprises and can be done outside of the App Store. (FileMaker requires membership in the iPhone Developer program , however, to offer enterprise licensing.) This proves enterprise licensing can be done. However, since FileMaker is an Apple subsidiary, the logistical challenges for the company are much reduced.

Another approach already used by Salesforce.com and Oracle for their iPhone applications is to tie access to an iPhone application to an existing product license. These options may point to Apple's eventual plan to partner with, or allow major developers access to, enterprise licensing models without providing full enterprise licensing to the entire App Store.

10. Develop a mass deployment solution other than iTunes

One of the big iPhone challenges in any business is its tie to iTunes. This is one of the areas where the phone's consumer orientation is most obvious.

While other smart phones may rely on desktop applications for syncing of contact, calendar and task information, none rely on an application that is first and foremost a media player. For many businesses, providing an iPhone to employees isn't the issue; granting access to, and indirectly encouraging the use of, iTunes is.

Apple does provide a way around this. iTunes is not required for iPhone use, only for activation and syncing. So it's possible for activation and distribution of the iPhone to be centrally managed with no planned sync to a desktop computer.

If your organization has an Exchange environment, users can sync most business data over the air once the iPhone is configured with an Exchange account. However, for organizations without Exchange, users can't sync most of their data without iTunes.

In an ideal remedy, Apple would develop an enterprise solution similar to the version of iTunes used by carriers to activate an iPhone in the store. That would provide all iTunes' data sync options as well as the ability to back up iPhone data -- without providing access to the iTunes Store or a media library. It could also provide a way to distribute in-house or enterprise-licensed apps.

Or, as I noted earlier, Apple could develop a server-based answer that provides sync options for environments without Exchange. This kind of platform could also be used to create a network version of the iPhone Configuration Utility, allowing administrators to keep track of their corporate iPhones and push out configuration profile updates. In effect, this would offer much the same capabilities available for managing iPhones from Exchange.

Regardless of what approach Apple takes, the challenges of mass iPhone deployment and management need to be addressed if the iPhone is truly going to be able to unseat other devices as the smart phone of choice for business.

Where does Apple go from here?

The iPhone has a lot of potential as a business device, but its ultimate success will depend on how well it responds to the real-world needs of corporate users and IT managers. To succeed, Apple will need to prove that the iPhone is more than a media player or a toy.

Getting developers to build business applications and providing certain core features in the iPhone interface are only half the battle. The other half will require Apple to shake off some of its consumer-oriented thinking and focus on the needs of enterprises when it comes to supporting and managing mobile devices.

Ryan Faas is a frequent Computerworld contributor specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. You can find more information about him at RyanFaas.com.

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