iPhone ready to take on BlackBerry with enterprise push

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Apple announced its intention Thursday to make a strong push toward helping companies incorporate the iPhone into their enterprise environment, highlighted by support for ActiveSync. Apple also touted features such as push e-mail and calendar and contact management that will be added in a future update to the iPhone’s software.

The plans announced by Apple during a briefing at its Cupertino headquarters put RIM’s popular BlackBerry handheld devices squarely in Apple’s sights.

“We’ve been hard at work trying to understand what it takes to bring the iPhone out across the enterprise,” Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of product marketing, told reporters during Thursday’s briefing. Schiller ticked off a list of features that Apple considered important for enterprise-level users: “push-based” e-mail, calendar info and contact management; additional support for Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) including Cisco IPsec; and two-factor authentication, certificates and identities. Apple also sees “enterprise-class” Wi-Fi with WPA2/802.1x support and tools to enforce security policies as critical. What’s more, IT managers are also looking to help deploy iPhones, set them up automatically, and, perhaps most importantly, wipe the devices when necessary, Schiller said.

“”They say if we just did these things, it would really help adoption in the enterprise,” Schiller added. “And we’re doing all of these things in the next release of the iPhone software.”

The features will be part of the iPhone 2.0 software update due in June; however, enterprise users can apply to be part of the beta testing.

By licensing the ActiveSync protocol from Microsoft, Apple will enable the iPhone to talk directly to Exchange, the leading groupware server from Microsoft. That will give the iPhone push e-mail, push calendaring, push contacts, global access lists, and remote wipe—features that IT managers have been clamoring for since the iPhone’s June 2007 release.

When the iPhone initially came out, some enterprises banned workers from using it for fear of security problems that could come with users accessing their corporate e-mail from the devices. But with Apple’s licensing of ActiveSync, Exchange e-mail can be securely pushed out to iPhones.

Apple joins a host of other prominent phone makers, including Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Motorola, among ActiveSync licensees.

In his demo Thursday, Schiller outlined the method that many organizations use, which is dependent on BlackBerry server communication—an imperfect method that has recently led to widespread service outages. An ActiveSync-based method will enable the iPhone to talk directly with Exchange servers in the enterprise, all while still using the same mail, calendar and contact information that’s built into the iPhone.

It’s still unclear what the changes announced by Apple might mean for offices that want to write private, internal apps for the iPhone. However, during a Q-and-A session following Apple’s presentation, Schiller said the company was working on a model that would let enterprises distribute applications to their own end users.

E-mail is likely the first of many enterprise applications that Apple will support in the iPhone, said Stephen Drake, an analyst at IDC. “This is the start,” he said.

He doesn’t expect that the iPhone Exchange capability will significantly affect sales of other dominant mobile e-mail platforms like BlackBerry or Windows Mobile. “This raises the level of interest,” he said.

Plus, despite all the buzz about mobile e-mail, the use of it now is quite small. There are hundreds of millions of e-mail boxes and 3 billion phones in the world, yet the number of mobile e-mail subscribers is in the double-digit millions, he said. “There’s plenty of room to grow. I don’t think anyone will be taken out by this,” Drake said.

Nancy Gohring of IDG News Service contributed to this report.

Updated at 1:20 p.m. PT to include new information throughout plus comments from IDC analyst Stephen Drake supplied by IDG News Service.

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