New iPhone still faces corporate disconnects

Apple’s announcement last week of a new iPhone designed to be more enterprise-friendly provoked a mix of curiosity and concern among IT managers who are weighing whether their organizations should purchase the trendy handheld for business use.

The verdict: Apple still has both hardware and software issues to work through before the iPhone is likely to be widely adopted in corporate environments.

One of the big question marks is Apple’s process for installing applications on iPhones, especially if a company has deployed hundreds or thousands of the devices.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who unveiled the iPhone 3G at the company’s developers conference in San Francisco, detailed a distribution model for custom applications that is based on a decidedly consumer-oriented piece of software: iTunes.

Read another take on Apple’s plan for distributing iPhone apps to enterprise users

Under that approach, companies need to obtain digital certificates for homegrown applications from Apple, then transmit the applications to Macs and PCs running iTunes. Individual iPhones have to be connected via a cable to an iTunes-equipped desktop computer in order to synchronize with the software and get access to the applications.

The direct-connect synchronization plan left IT managers such as Vivek Kundra, chief technology officer for the District of Columbia, looking for more options from Apple.

Kundra is beta-testing about 15 first-generation iPhones along with the iPhone 2.0 software that Apple announced earlier this year. The $199 price tag for the entry-level iPhone 3G will make the device “a lot more palatable for the enterprise,” he said.

But Kundra is skeptical that relying on iTunes for distributing applications will work on a large scale. “Right now, using iTunes to download is fine with us,” he said. “But when iPhone [use] scales to thousands of units, I want to push software to users wirelessly.”

In an e-mail, Manjit Singh, CIO at Chiquita Brands International, expressed concerns about the amount of control that Apple could exert over IT operations.

“I don’t want to be carrier-locked [to AT&T], and I don’t want to be forced to distribute apps via iTunes,” Singh wrote. He added that needing permission from Apple to put an internally developed application on iTunes “won’t be realistic” for Chiquita, which uses BlackBerry devices and has no plans to test the iPhone.

It remains unclear how third-party applications created with the iPhone 2.0 software developers kit will be distributed to corporate end users.

Other shortcomings that could dampen corporate enthusiasm for the iPhone include the need to mail in devices for battery replacements, the lack of an enterprise tech-support group at Apple, and the fact that the management and security tools available for the iPhone still lag behind those of the BlackBerry and other rivals.

Apple has taken some big steps forward. For example, it has added support for pushing e-mail and contact lists from Exchange servers to iPhones, and for using Cisco Systems’ IPsec-based VPN technology to securely connect the handhelds to corporate networks.

Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney said Apple deserves credit for such features. But for now, he added, giving iPhones access to a limited set of applications, such as e-mail, might be the wisest strategy for companies adopting the device.

Agam Shah of the IDG News Service contributed to this story.

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