Can your iPhone replace your laptop?

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.)

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 version 2 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.

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

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