How much work can you do on an iPhone?
It’s hard not to look at an iPhone and wonder whether you could chuck your laptop and use it to do all your work instead. After all, it offers e-mail, always-on Web access, and an ever increasing roster of applications, many of which have business use in mind.
Add in the fact that laptops are awkward to carry to meetings, and that their batteries never last as long as the work you need to do, and the appeal of replacing a laptop with an iPhone becomes readily apparent. So in the spirit of finding out how far you can you go relying exclusively on an iPhone for work, I decided to spend a month using an iPhone 3G in place of my laptop wherever possible. (Read about my similar BlackBerry Bold experiment.)
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Although the low likelihood of anyone ditching their laptop for an iPhone for work was confirmed, the results were somewhat surprising and definite affirmation that the iPhone’s large screen, novel gesture-based interface, built-in browser, ability to run apps, and 3G and Wi-Fi networking aren’t just for fun and games anymore.
E-mail: Almost a desktop replacement
The iPhone 3G’s 2.x OS is much more attuned to business use than Apple’s first attempt, now providing native Exchange support, as well as better security and management capabilities. If you use Exchange server or IMAP (to access your server folders), the iPhone’s e-mail capabilities are quite good. Coupled with the device’s far superior ease of connectivity when compared to my laptop, iPhone e-mail quickly transformed me into an e-mail addict in places not previously possible, such as during my bus-and-train commute and pretty much anywhere I was idle. (As with the BlackBerry Bold, I had to consciously stop checking for messages to attend to other concerns, like my family.) The iPhone’s large screen also made e-mails easier to read because I didn’t have to scroll that often.
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My main frustration with iPhone e-mail is that some senders’ HTML message templates prevented me from zooming in. And the iPhone does not let you rotate messages to landscape mode for closer or wider viewing, as I would have expected. The iPhone’s support of HTML in e-mails is great—except when it gets in the way.
As with the BlackBerry Bold, data service did leave my hands idle at times, as I waited through connectivity gaps in the train tunnels now nearly intolerable due to my newfound always-on addiction to messaging. A trip to New York also alerted me to the difficulty of single-provider coverage, as I had no data service through a whole swath of southern Manhattan, from Wall Street to Chelsea. (In the United States, the iPhone is available only through AT&T, whose coastal network coverage is inadequate.)
Switching from laptop to iPhone meant getting acquainted with the iPhone’s on-screen touch keyboard. At first, the touchpad proved hard to use, and I was constantly tapping the incorrect key. And relying on the iPhone’s autocorrect feature made for some wildly wrong substitutions. Though you can turn this feature off, the iPhone does pay attention to your typing, adjusting its autocorrection over time accordingly, making it a valuable tool in the long run. I also grew to like the iPhone’s caps-lock function and its ability to display special keyboards for symbols and accented letters — no finger contortions or shortcut memorization required.
After a couple weeks, I was comfortably proficient tapping with one finger, making no more mistakes than I would on a regular keyboard (admittedly a low bar). Sending and replying to messages soon became easy; I could even type multiple paragraphs on a bus.
With e-mail, I quickly was delighted by the iPhone’s ability to list addresses I had responded to previously so that I didn’t have to type them again—even though they weren’t in my address book. (It’s also easy to add someone’s e-mail to your address book but no other information at that time if you don’t want to.)
The iPhone makes deleting messages a piece of cake. There’s a Trash icon at the bottom of the screen when you’re reading messages, plus you can flick your finger over any e-mail in a message list to get a Delete button. And you can multiple-delete messages very quickly by clicking a radio button to the left of each unwanted message, then tapping the Delete button. The spam is gone in seconds.
The iPhone can display formatted Office and PDF documents in e-mail attachments—as long as they’re not zipped. This limitation tripped me up repeatedly, as one of my clients’ e-mail system automatically zips attachments, so I could not even review them on the iPhone. That slowed down my response time. I also could not save e-mail attachments themselves to a folder on the iPhone, and Apple doesn’t allow any third-party apps to do so. That became a real issue on the road, essentially preventing me from working on any files that came in.
As someone who extensively uses folders to manage e-mail, I love how easy it is to navigate among your e-mail folders on the iPhone. When you open a folder, the iPhone syncs to your mail server and pulls in the latest stored messages, up to a limit you specify in your device preferences. You can move messages among folders, which is great for keeping your inbox tidy, and doing so updates Exchange—the inability to set up mail filtering rules and to block spam are the only omissions keeping the iPhone from being your main e-mail management tool.
I also set up my personal e-mail account on the iPhone, which creates a separate folder structure for each account automatically and allows easy navigation back to the list of accounts. Setting up an e-mail account is very easy. Select the type of account, enter the e-mail address and password, and the iPhone tries to detect the rest of the settings for you. If it cannot, you get a single pane in which to enter them all.
All in all, the iPhone is a surprisingly good e-mail client. It’s not quite able to be your primary e-mail device, but it can do the job for many consecutive days if need be. But the inability to deal with file attachments other than to view the supported formats is a major limitation that really keeps the iPhone from working as a surrogate computer.
Calendars and contacts: Adequate, but with notable holes
If you use Exchange, the iPhone keeps synced to your contacts and calendar in real time. You can choose to sync any combination of your e-mail, calendar, and contacts—a nice manageability touch.
Things get a little tricky when syncing contacts and calendar items outside of Exchange. The iPhone forces you to use iTunes for that, and it regularly screws up your contacts and address book if you sync to multiple computers. (Exchange syncing does not have that flaw.) iTunes does support multiple calendars, so you can separate your work and home appointments, for example, and choose which calendars to synchronize to the iPhone.
But the iPhone has an annoying omission: Once you enter a new calendar item, you can’t change what calendar it is assigned to. I repeatedly forgot my iPhone was set with my work calendar as the default, and I almost always forgot to set my home appointments calendar when entering information, so they would appear on my work calendar and stay there until I changed them on my Mac.
Worse, when you get an .ics calendar invitation attachment in an e-mail, you can’t click it or otherwise get it added to your calendar; I got several appointment requests I couldn’t act on. Even when I could see their times and dial-in numbers in the e-mails’ body or subject lines, the lack of cut and paste on the iPhone meant I couldn’t easily add them to my calendar — I had to write them down and type them in to the calendar. That’s not exactly how it’s supposed to be. Plus, the other participants didn’t get an acknowledgment of my accepting or declining the invitation.
I had no issues using the iPhone’s address book. It’s easy to enter and edit contacts, as well as to scroll through and search them.
Documents and apps: An amazing array of options
Apple recently bragged about its 1 billionth app download to iPhone users. I can see why. I’ve installed more than 20, though I use maybe five with any regularity. Most are utilities, such as a currency converter, language translator, level, LinkedIn front end, Amazon.com front end, restaurant finder, and train schedule, plus several magazine and newspaper readers. They’re the kinds of apps that help you do day-to-day stuff, and most are really well executed. Although most iPhone apps are for fun and games, there are an increasing number of business apps, with the latest rage being several credit card processors.
The iPhone has no built-in text editor, so to edit documents, I used the $20 Quickoffice app. It has its own cut and paste (which the iPhone OS won’t get across apps until version 3.0 this summer), allowing me to perform basic edits. Plus, it retains revisions tracking in the original files when you save edited versions, though any changes you make in Quickoffice are not tracked as revisions.
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But because of Apple’s iPhone app restrictions, Quickoffice can’t open files in e-mail attachments. That means in practice you can’t work with documents you get on the road. Quickoffice has a very handy tool to let you exchange files between your iPhone and a Mac or PC over Wi-Fi, but of course if you have your computer to do that, you might as well use it to work on those files. At most, you can carry files with you in case you need to make changes, such as right after a client meeting when an idea is fresh in your head.
Although the iPhone screen can’t compete with a desktop monitor, its resolution, zoom, and scrolling make working with files plausible at a basic level or for emergencies. I still needed my laptop to do my everyday work.
We use Google Docs at the office for shared planners, calendars, and working proposals, so I tried accessing Google Docs as well. I could edit and add calendar entries, though it’s difficult to fit everything on the iPhone’s screen at a readable size. I could edit spreadsheet cells, but there are many confirmation steps Google requires of iPhone users. And forget about adding rows or columns; it’s technically possible, but you have no control of their location. You can’t edit text documents at all—just view them.
I surveyed several sales- and marketing-oriented apps such as Salesforce.com. Salesforce uses the iPhone’s interface quite well, making the entry and management of contacts, opportunities, and so forth easy to do. And performance over the 3G network was fine. You could handle a lot of customer interaction over the iPhone, instead of dragging your laptop or netbook with you.
The App Store is easy to navigate, both on the iPhone and on a computer via iTunes, though there aren’t subcategories to help narrow down your choices within the store’s broad categories. I had to use search a lot instead. Installing apps is trivial; they install automatically once you’ve entered your account password on the iPhone or the next time you sync if you buy them via iTunes.
iPhone apps are addictive, even if many are faddish. Although I can’t do my job using iPhone apps, I can rely on many to make parts of my on-the-go life and work easier.
Web and location services: Easy as pie
Accessing the Web on the iPhone is a positive experience. The Safari browser handles most modern Web pages, and the ability to zoom and scroll via gestures makes navigation simple. Forms, menu options, graphics, DIVs, and MP3 files all work. But Flash files don’t work, which limits the value of multimedia-oriented sites. Sites that require ActiveX or client-side Java also can’t run their applets on an iPhone either.
An increasing number of sites have iPhone-optimized versions—Amazon.com, Cnet, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, USA Today, American Airlines, and JetBlue Airways are all good examples—that eliminate the need to scroll and zoom. It’s almost as if a parallel Web is emerging. I ended up using these sites most often, because they usually are easier to access. It’s funny how the iPhone’s ability to work with regular desktop pages at first seemed so cool, but the lasting value for me came from the optimized mobile sites.
It took me very little time to reach for my iPhone whenever I wanted to go to a Web site. Whether or not it was iPhone-optimized, I could almost always work with it. The iPhone makes a great Web access tool, especially for “hit and run” visits.
The iPhone comes with Google Maps installed, which does a good job of using the device’s GPS and related geolocation capabilities to give you directions and show you where you are. The iPhone’s zoom and scrolling gestures make navigating maps easy; they usually updated in real time as I moved my finger across the screen. If there was a redraw lag, the iPhone at least remembered where my finger moved, so I didn’t feel lost when the screen finally redrew. My only beef with Google Maps is that when it moves from one turn to another, its zooming out and then back in can be disconcerting and make you lose the overall picture of where you are.
A standard “find me” button in most location-enabled apps made it easy to get going, whether looking for a nearby restaurant or “bookmarking” the location of my car so that I could get directions back to it later. Even the local Bay Area Rapid Transit system’s iPhone app used this feature to tell me where the nearest BART station was, though it didn’t draw a map of how to get to it.
I was impressed that the iPhone could find my location even when I was in a building or some other point obstructing the line of sight between the device and the GPS satellites. It uses both Wi-Fi and cellular triangulation to find your location, so it’s rare that you can’t find out where you are.
The iPhone’s Web browser is almost as capable as a desktop browser, and it does a great job of working in its confined screen real estate without stripping out the visual and functional richness of the Web. Once the Flash and Java issues are resolved, the iPhone browser will be on par with a desktop browser. Location services are likewise well implemented and easy to use, and the number of applications that take advantage of this capability in imaginative, handy ways is impressive.
Give your laptop a rest
The iPhone comes very close to being a laptop replacement for many basic business and field-service uses. Its file-handling limitations and lack of support for enterprise mail servers other than Exchange are the biggest reasons it can’t really replace a laptop. Some silly flaws like the calendar integration issues also get in the way.
You can’t do intensive work on it, such as writing proposals, creating budgets, managing production schedules, creating graphics, or developing apps, of course. But the iPhone can handle a lot of routine business tasks that let you put down your laptop for several hours at a stretch. It’s become part of my daily toolkit, one I enjoy using.
[Galen Gruman is executive editor of InfoWorld for features and news.]