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iPhone, Welcome to the Enterprise

Last August, in The iPhone is Not a Smart Phone, I wrote about my experiences with Apple's amazing iPhone. At the time, I argued that the iPhone, innovative as it is, wasn't technically a smart phone at all because it lacked compatibility with Microsoft Exchange and other enterprise niceties like centralized management. The argument was simple: Look beyond the hype, realize that Apple wasn't meeting the needs of businesses, and shop elsewhere.

My, how things have changed. At a special event last week at its Cupertino headquarters, Apple laid out its roadmap for what it calls the iPhone 2.0 software update (see my preview). This major improvement to the iPhone software platform includes two key pieces. The first is a software development kit (SDK) that will allow developers of all kinds, from amateur individuals to in-house corporate programmers, to develop native applications that run on top of the iPhone. The second will, perhaps, be of more interest to the business user: Apple is adding enterprise features, including support for Microsoft Exchange, to the iPhone.

The enterprise oriented features appear to be just what we're looking for: push email, push calendaring, push contacts, global address list support, VPN support (for Cisco IPSec VPN), certificates and identities (two-factor authentication), enterprise-class Wi-Fi (WPA 2 Enterprise, 802.1x), enforceable security policies (such as mandating the use of PINs on the iPhone), and centralized device configuration, and remote wipe (so that a stolen or lost iPhone can be wiped out over the air, removing any personal or corporate data on the device).

Many of these features, of course, are delivered via Apple's licensing of Microsoft ActiveSync technologies, which will allow iPhones to interact, over the air, with Exchange servers. So beginning sometime this summer, when iPhone software 2.0 ships, iPhones will be able to sync directly with Exchange in a manner than is identical to that now offered by Windows Mobile devices as well as those devices whose makers have also licensed ActiveSync.

I'm excited about this support but have some questions. Apple has yet to divulge how companies will centrally manage iPhones, and I have a hard time imagining the company shipping an MMC-style management console that will please enterprises. (You never know.) And though the new SDK will let corporations develop custom applications for the iPhone--itself a boon to iPhone deployments in businesses--it's not yet clear how Apple plans to let us deploy those applications. (Apple executives vaguely admitted in a Q & A after last week's event that corporations wouldn't be forced to deploy custom applications via the public iTunes Store, however.)

Another question is support. Even if Apple puts all the pieces in place and delivers exactly the functionality that businesses are looking for, the company doesn't exactly have a proud history of creating and supporting enterprise-class software. While smaller, forward-leaning businesses are sure to jump on the iPhone bandwagon immediately, larger companies will naturally be more resistant.

So we're going to have to wait and see what happens, in some ways. But in general terms, it looks like Apple has answered the number one complaint about the iPhone. And with Exchange support and the other enterprise functionality that the company announced last week, the iPhone can finally be called a smart phone.

An edited version of this article first appeared in the March 11, 2008 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul

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