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Analysis: The iPhone moves into the enterprise

I spent Thursday about 1,800 miles away from Apple’s briefing on its iPhone plans for the enterprise, so my impressions are based entirely upon live coverage of the event itself. Keeping that in mind, I think Apple nailed this one. Just nailed it. Apple answered pretty much every question that IT had, and in the way we wanted it answered.

First, a quick rundown of what got announced—Apple is adding support for push e-mail, contacts, and calendaring, which should finally allow Apple’s phone to talk to Apple’s server. For shops moving to Mac OS X 10.5 Server, this is important. Apple is also promising more support for more VPN types, including Cisco—huge in the IT world—as well as support for two-factor authentication (although there were no real details on this Thursday). Certificate and identity support, also announced though with no details, is big, assuming Apple does it right. The promise of better Wi-Fi security support is always a bonus in the business world. Along with that, Apple is going to offer tools to both enforce security policy, and configure multiple devices for deployment.

I expected most of that, which is why I included those items in my predictions for Thursday’s event. In fact, during the first five minutes of the briefing, Apple hit numbers 1, 3, 6, and most of number 2 from my list.

Then Apple announced something I hadn’t expected—it licensed Microsoft’s ActiveSync for the iPhone. So in addition to push e-mail/contacts/calendaring, you’ll get a direct connections to Exchange. Apple’s Phil Schiller even did a little demo to show it in action. This is huge, not only for ActiveSync, but because Apple did it. This should give IT executives more confidence in adding iPhones to their Exchange network than ActiveSync from a third party would. (It’s not that someone else couldn’t do it better—it’s that Apple doing it is better from the IT POV.) Besides fulfilling a big request from the IT crowd, it also gave Apple a chance to get in some digs at RIM for the BlackBerry outages by pointing out that an Exchange-phone is a simpler, and in theory, more reliable system than Exchange-BlackBerry Enterprise Server-phone connection.

While this is an obvious win for Exchange shops, ActiveSync is not an Exchange-only product. Kerio MailServer, Communigate Pro, Zimbra, and other groupware servers license ActiveSync from Microsoft. I did do some quick poking around IBM’s Lotus EasySync Pro site, and while it looks like Notes works with ActiveSync, and may in fact not require any client-side software, I couldn’t verify it. So I’ll say there’s a good chance that the iPhone’s ActiveSync support means that Notes shops can make use of the iPhone too. Thus, by licensing ActiveSync, Apple opened the door for the iPhone in far more than just Exchange shops.

It didn’t end there. Apple also added what I had said was a deal-breaker for a lot of companies, namely, remote data wipe. Apple even demoed it on stage, with no company data appearing after the phone rebooted, bang, no company data.

Apple then talked about the SDK itself, what’s included in it. The iPhone includes a touch-specific version of Cocoa—Cocoa Touch—designed around the iPhone’s input mechanisms. There’s a system level SQLlite database, and interestingly, Core Location, which allows developers access to the same Wi-Fi and cell tower triangulation mechanisms as Google Maps users. While it’s not a substitute for GPS, it has huge potential for sales and remote workers, not to mention stolen device recovery. (For those keeping count, this is essentially what is needed to implement the LoJack idea I talked about in number 7 on my list, and it’s about what I figured Apple would have to provide for such a feature. So, I’ll take it, based on Apple coming through for their part. Six out of 10 right so far. Not bad at all.)

Apple also demonstrated how you can not only simulate the iPhone in Xcode, but directly test applications on an iPhone via Xcode and a dock cable—not only a nice touch, but it shows how company-specific applications could be installed on iPhones. There’s also a huge “Hack my iPhone” potential there, unless the application goes away when the cable is disconnected.

The inevitable march of prototype applications came next, with the standard “It only took us a really short amount of time to do this” quotes. Demos included games and AIM, of course, but the two that caught my eye were from Salesforce.com and Epocrates.

Salesforce.com demoed an application that was an iPhone version of its standard sales force automation work, talking to the Salesforce APIs so you can have live connections to backend data. I expect SAP and the rest to follow. Well, Microsoft won’t, but honestly, so what? If Microsoft wants to ignore this, that’s their damage.

The application that really caught my eye was a drug information database from Epocrates. First, this is an obvious application for the iPhone. With a nice hi-res screen for drug pictures and the ability to search via color, it’s all what a doctor would want, and no nasty Windows Mobile or Palm OS to deal with. But more important, this is a big step into the medical vertical market for Apple, a market that is currently owned by Microsoft. If Apple can gain acceptance in that community, it could do some evil things to Microsoft’s vertical market share. (Thinking about the announcement from the Microsoft Enterprise POV, this is a mix of good and bad for them. The iPhone supporting Exchange is great news for that product, but it also put a knife in one of Steve Ballmer’s best attack vectors for the iPhone. Now all he has left are attachments and price.)

The iPhone developer fund, aka the “iFund” from Kleiner Perkins was another sign of how seriously Apple is taking this SDK. Investing $100 million to help new developers with the economic realities of establishing themselves in a new market is quite brilliant. We all like to talk smack about venture capitalists, but they provide a necessary service, and Apple seeding one just for iPhone development shows some excellent long-range planning on Apple’s part.

The “iFund” was the last announcement of the event, which was followed by a Q&A session. Apple confirmed that you will be able to mix Exchange and other account types in Mail and iCal, with a one-per-device limitation on Exchange accounts. There were a few questions on application distribution that kind of worried me, because Apple seemed to be forcing everyone to go through the App Store, which will be how you get “normal” commercial and free applications on the iPhone. If that were to be the case, that would be quite bad for companies that would want to have internal-only applications on their iPhones.

Luckily, Jacqui Cheng of Ars Technica was in the audience, and specifically asked about that. Phil Schiller’s answer was just what I wanted to hear: “We’re working on a model for enterprises for them to distribute applications to their end users, specifically with a program for them to target their end users. We have a model we’re building for that.” In fact, if you’re interested in using the new iPhone features in your corporate world, Apple already has a site up for doing just that.

All in all, this was a near-perfect iPhone event for Apple. As for my predictions, well, the only ones that weren’t specifically addressed in some way were GPS/GPS APIs, (not surprising, this would have required a new iPhone), Wireless/Bluetooth synching with the desktop, and tethering. I’ll take half credit on Phone APIs, (number 9), so that means I hit .650 on this event. If I could only do that with an actual baseball bat, I’d be making a lot more money.

Baseball fantasies aside, from an IT viewpoint, this was exactly the event I’d hoped it would be. If this all comes together as it should in June, this summer is going to be a rather happy one for Apple. I know I cannot wait for this year’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference.

[John C. Welch is a Unix/Open Systems Administrator for Kansas City Life Insurance and a long-time Mac IT pundit.]

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