Making the iPhone a killer business device

6. Develop tools to create and edit Office documents

Perhaps the biggest business feature needed on the iPhone is the ability to create and edit Office documents.

Since its early releases, the iPhone has allowed users to download e-mail attachments that contain common file formats like Word and Excel and view the contents. The list of supported file types has grown dramatically and now includes all major Office formats as well as Apple’s own iWork formats.

The problem is that the iPhone provides no way to edit these files. This is one of the biggest advantages other smart phones offer over the iPhone. BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Palm devices all allow basic document editing, either as a built-in feature or through third-party applications.

While not all editing features are needed, being able to make basic changes to a document on the iPhone is a sorely needed improvement. If Apple itself can’t devise a solution, it should encourage third-party app makers to develop one.

7. Allow file storage/management on the iPhone itself

Perhaps one reason document editing isn’t available on the iPhone is that it would require the device to support some kind of file storage and management. Apple hasn’t offered up any such capabilities and, in fact, seems to have worked to prevent any way to directly store or manipulate files on the iPhone.

There is, of course, room to add applications to extend the iPhone’s capabilities, with the amount of space depending on which model you pick—the 8GB version or the 16GB iteration. But all that room does nothing for file storage if there’s no file storage architecture on the phone.

This is a problem for business users. There is no way to use the iPhone as a hard drive to store or move files from one computer to another—something iPods have been able to do since they were introduced. More importantly, it means developers cannot allow different applications to access each other’s documents. While it’s understandable from a security perspective why Apple might adopt this approach, there’s no practical reason it couldn’t create a single locked-down directory on the iPhone for user documents.

A number of third-party applications, including Air Sharing , DataCase and FileMagnet , already allow users to transfer files to an iPhone using Wi-Fi networking, which proves it can be done without compromising the device. The problem is that many of these options result in what is essentially read-only access, limiting their practical use.

8. Add copy and paste functionality

One of the iPhone’s big limitations from the start has been the lack of support for copying and pasting data, either within an application or between applications.

Copy and paste has become such an ingrained part of computing that it’s shocking to imagine any platform without it. Since it’s been available on Windows Mobile and other platforms for years—and in the third-party Magic Pad iPhone application—the capability clearly exists.

Apple claims to have heard the cries about copy and paste but says it isn’t a priority. Sure, there are more important issues that should be addressed first, but if Apple ever offers document-editing capabilities on the iPhone, copy and paste needs to be implemented alongside them.

And even now the ability to copy and paste from e-mails, Web pages, calendar items and read-only documents would be a boon. If the iPhone is ever to become the business kingpin it has the potential to be, this feature is a must.

9. Implement enterprise licensing for the App Store

I doubt anyone could call the App Store anything but a rousing a success. With thousands of applications easy to access (if not always easy to find) and download, the App Store offers users a single place to get new apps and provides a revenue stream for Apple and developers. Numerous applications in the App Store have serious business potential.

But the entire plan for the App Store seems relentlessly consumer-centric. Access is tied to an Apple ID for billing and is required even for free applications. Like other iTunes purchases, only five computers can be authorized for a single Apple ID.

While this works for individuals, families and very small businesses, it doesn’t scale well for businesses looking to roll out more than a handful of iPhones. There are only two main options: centrally activate and sync all iPhones to a handful of computers using the same set of Apple IDs, or require users to purchase and download applications on their own with individual Apple IDs—though these could be set up to bill to a company account. Neither option is particularly attractive.

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.]

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