Enterprises no longer hang up on iPhones

Less than a year ago, industry analysts were warning enterprises not to allow Apple iPhones onto their corporate systems. Concerns over security and the inability to synchronize with e-mail and calendar applications meant the wildly popular device was unpopular with IT and network managers.

But according to a recent Forrester Research report, at least two American-based Fortune 500 companies – Kraft Foods and Oracle – are encouraging staff to choose the slim cellphone after Apple upgraded the software. Version 2.0 includes ActiveSynch for synchronizing to Microsoft Exchange and includes VPN encryption for security.

As a result, “it’s a different product,” says Ted Schadler, vice-president and principal analyst for collaboration products at Forrester and a co-author of the report. And with version 3.0 expected this summer with more improvements aimed at enterprises, including VPN caching, upgraded calendar synching and the ability to read e-mail in landscape mode, Forrester says iPhones are corporate-network ready.

Surprisingly, it also found anecdotal evidence that iPhones users won’t bankrupt the company by consuming data – at least on AT&T’s data plans. No one would go on the record with specifics, Schadler said, but he found some organizations saying the U.S. provider had iPhone data plans that cost less than for other smartphones.

It isn’t clear how extensive iPhone adoption in enterprises is in this country. Neither Apple Canada nor Rogers Communications, the only iPhone provider here, could provide a Canadian customer to be interviewed.

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Why are some enterprises hot for iPhones? In its report, Forrester notes the device’s intuitive interface and rapidly-maturing developer tool kit makes content-rich applications more appealing on an iPhone than on a BlackBerry or Windows Mobile handset. Even the data-only iTouch, which wirelessly connects to networks via 802.11n, could be a useful sidekick to a voice phone, says Forrester. There are other reasons as well. Kraft is a food company, not immediately thought of as a technology innovator.

But, says Forrester, the vice-president who heads Kraft’s workforce technology services thought iPhones would symbolically show IT is serious about supporting culture change. It helped that Apple made Kraft part of its iPhone enterprise beta program in April, 2008. Nine months later almost half of Kraft’s mobile users had iPhones, with 400 new phones being added each month.

At Oracle, the push came from staff who bought iPhones themselves and then wanted connectivity to e-mail and calendar apps. The database vendor was able to comply using the open standards in its Beehive collaboration software, helped by iPhone’s support for IMAP and SMTP. There are now 4,000 Oracle iPhone users.

E-mail and calendars aren’t the only applications iPhone users work with, Schadler noted. Smartphone users can also take advantage of browser access to corporate portals to access information when out of the office, Web training and collaboration.

The moves by enterprises were not always easy. Kraft, for example, suffered some problems with calendar synchronization, while Oracle reported that management tools were incomplete.

These and other problems – including the ability to force a VPN login where needed, to disable cameras, to encrypt backup to the desktop through iTunes and support for CalDAV-based calendars – are expected to be addressed in the 3.0 software release. For now and until the update is released and tested, IT and telecom managers are warned.

Meanwhile other companies, such as Kace and Sybase, are releasing applications to fill in holes they believe will help iPhone in the enterprise.

One of the conclusions Forrester drew is that sometimes in just makes sense to give employees the freedom to choose the tools they want to work with. “If an iPhone makes an employee happy,” the report says, “then supporting it will deliver collateral benefits of a happier workforce and a new line of communication between IT and employee. “Individuals seem to be willing to buy an iPhone with their own money,” Schadler observed, “even though the company’s willing to provision them with another device at no cost.”

Which brings up another lesson: Stay out of the device and mobile plan business. Some companies see giving staffers a phone, tied to a corporate plan, as a perk. That cuts down on the use of cellphones for personal calls, but often means staffers have to carry a handset for business and one for other uses. However, Schadler says that increasingly organizations are letting staffers pick their own phone – which has the added benefit of outsourcing responsibility for the device – and reimbursing them for a defined number of minutes/megabytes per month on either a corporate- or personal-liable plan. Staff can still be required to sign a form to follow the organization’s security policies, including having a PIN to access the device and agreement that the phone has to be remotely wiped if the user leaves the company. Support costs are being kept down at Kraft and Oracle through the use of an employee-run wiki. Costs can also be checked by setting up a self-provisioning process through a corporate portal.

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“My counsel to our clients is they should not be in the business of restricting what phones employees use. They should be in the business of supporting the phones that employees feel give them a competitive edge,” Schadler said. Survey staffers and limit approval to the devices that have the most popularity if it meets the organization’s security and productivity needs.

Schadler, who has both an iPhone and another smartphone, warns that the Apple device isn’t the total winner among mobile productivity devices. For messaging and calendaring, nothing beats a BlackBerry today, he said.

“For any other application, though, the iPhone is a better interface.” At least for now.

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