iPhone launch: Can it handle Exchange?

Overall, the new US$600 iPhone appears to be a major advance in the state-of-the-art of 21st century gadgetry. But in one glaring area — e-mail — Apple Inc.’s new smartphone appears downright retro.

While the iPhone will competently handle popular consumer e-mail services such as Google Inc.’s Gmail or Yahoo Inc.’s Yahoo! Mail, its ability to work with corporate e-mail systems, as of now, is no better than mediocre.

That’s because neither Apple Inc. nor AT&T Inc., the exclusive iPhone carrier in the United States, had, as of Thursday, confirmed whether the iPhone will be using third-party synchronization technology.

These technologies allow users to encrypt their e-mails for secure transmission and update their contacts, calendar and tasks wirelessly rather than the next time when they physically connect with their PC.

The best known include Microsoft Corp.’s ActiveSync, which connects with Microsoft’s popular Exchange e-mail server software; Motorola subsidiary Good Technology Inc.’s Mobile Messaging, which allows devices similar over-the-air connectivity with Lotus Notes/Domino and Exchange servers; or even Research in Motion’s BlackBerry Connect, the trademark e-mail ‘push’ technology that made its BlackBerrys so popular and which the Canadian company is now licensing to other vendors.

From an IT management perspective, these products allow IT administrators to remotely manage these devices.

That can help an IT manager “when he gets a 2 a.m. call from the CEO complaining his e-mail is down,” said Keith McCall, CTO at e-mail service provider Azaleos Corp. Or it can let an IT manager wipe all of the data from a smartphone if it is lost.

“For a corporate IT manager, this is not a ‘nice-to-have’ but a ‘must-have,'” said Ravi Agarwal, CEO of Exchange hosting provider GroupSpark. ActiveSync, which is used by more than 200 smartphones from vendors including Motorola Inc., Nokia Corp., Treo maker Palm Inc., Sony Ericsson, Symbian and others, might be the most likely bet.

ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley, citing anonymous sources, reported earlier this week that Apple is on the verge of licensing the ActiveSync technology from Microsoft.

Through a spokeswoman, Microsoft said Wednesday that it declined to “comment on rumors.”

Necessary or just nice?

Since the iPhone is targeted at consumers, does the iPhone really need corporate-level sync capabilities?

Without ActiveSync or an equivalent, iPhone users will still in most cases be able to check their Exchange e-mail using the Safari Web browser and going to their company’s Outlook Web Access page.

Or they can use Mac Mail or Microsoft’s Entourage to connect to Exchange or Notes/Domino e-mail servers using the popular POP3 or IMAP protocols.

But experts say IMAP and POP3 replication is less secure than ActiveSync and the like, because IT administrators often have to open up a port in their network firewall to send and receive e-mail.

Moreover, IMAP and POP3 are generally slower than more advanced technologies. That will be exacerbated when iPhoners are outside of Wi-Fi range and have to use AT&T’s slowish EDGE data network to get their e-mail.

For that and other reasons, many users may forward their corporate e-mail to an outside consumer Web-based service, compromising message security, according to Ken Dulaney, an analyst with Gartner Inc., who issued a report on Wednesday urging IT organizations to refuse to support the iPhone for now.

That argument falls apart even more when you consider that even smartphones aimed at teenagers, such as T-Mobile’s Sidekick and Helio’s Ocean, all boast ActiveSync capability.

And with its $600 pricetag and 2-year plans that start at $59.99 a month, the iPhone may end up being bought mostly by adults, and well-off ones like managers and bosses, at that.

“Traditionally, mobile devices have been adopted from the top-down,” McCall said. “If the CEO says he wants an iPhone, then the IT administrator is usually forced to accommodate that request.”

Both McCall and Agarwal expect Apple to announce that it has licensed a third-party sync technology — later if not sooner.

In the meantime, what’s an IT manager to do? Dulaney urges IT administrators to be stingy about granting iPhone support, which he says should be traded for funding to train IT staffers on the iPhone.

Another alternative, provided that Apple fails to license or improve the iPhone’s sync capabalities, is synchronization software from Redwood City, Calif.-based Visto. On Thursday, the company said it will release software in the third quarter that will allow the iPhone to securely connect with Exchange and Lotus Domino servers.

The Visto software will use SSL encryption to protect e-mail as they are ‘pushed’ out to the iPhone. Visto is based on the IMAP protocol, which is why it does not require Apple to license the technology, too, according to a spokeswoman.

Using Visto will not require IT managers to open up any ports in their firewall and compromise their security, she said. However, Visto does not offer any remote management features such as killing lost devices, nor does it synchronize calendar, contacts or task data between server and iPhone.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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