iPhone 2.0; is it time to get down to some business?
Everyone loves the iPhone but it's not for everyone. Some people need a business tool; they need to manage their life from their pockets and whilst the current iPhone has contacts and calendar features it sits on an island, only synchronising with its home PC through iTunes.
Many business users are familiar with enterprise email, contacts and calendar synchronisation through their desktops using Microsoft Outlook on the PC, Entourage on Mac or Evolution on Linux; even webmail allows all the synchronisation to happen. They depend on companywide calendars, scheduling and being able to find company contacts quickly and easily. At the heart of most companies' email is Microsoft Exchange; the most popular product used by the IT department to make this all happen.
When business users step out of the office, tools like Windows Smartphone and Blackberry organisers allow them to take the world of office collaboration with them; checking emails at the airport, scheduling a meeting for next week and looking up the email address for the new hire in accounts. Take these features away; leave only email and you quickly feel like you're missing an arm! This is the reality today for the iPhone user; even if your IT department allows it through the door, you're not going to enjoy the experience all that much.
That all changed today with the release of the latest free update from Apple - Firmware 2.0.
To get the update, just sync your iPhone as normal and wait for the pop-up to let you know that the new software is available; several minutes later and we're all better.
There are few updates to the firmware as well as the much anticipated Exchange support; Contact search, CISCO VPN support, The App Store, Video camera and Parental controls plus some usability enhancements to email such as multi-item delete, search and a scientific mode for the calculator plus extended features such as better document support for Office and iWorks.
Starting out with the most significant update; Microsoft Exchange support or rather, support of ActiveSync, the protocol that Microsoft Exchange layers on top of the regular, ordinary https transport that we use to read secure web pages. ActiveSync is already supported by Microsoft Smartphone, PocketPC, Windows Mobile, most Palm devices and some Nokia phones. It allows the handheld device to retrieve and send updates to the exchange server over the web so it’s possible to take a picture with the iPhone, attach it to a contact so that it pops up on the phone when that person calls then, move to your desktop PC, open your corporate outlook client, look up your friend and there’s the picture already synchronised... That’s cool by the way.
What makes ActiveSync stand out from other synchronisation technologies other than its massive installed base is that it includes the important security controls needed by corporate infrastructure to manage a mobile workforce. Controls such as PIN locking and remote wipe ease the security fears that keep IT staff up at night by allowing the system administrator or you via Exchange 2007’s web mail interface to shutdown and wipe a lost or stolen phone before the contacts can be harvested by the average Joe that finds it.
Setting up active sync on the iPhone is as straightforward as we’ve come to expect from Apple; a new email provider type leads you through to the address of the ActiveSync server, the user id and password and the selection of the elements that you’d like to sync; email, calendar and contacts. It’s a shame that it doesn’t sync notes as the notes application on iPhone would seem to fit that role.
Once set up, the iPhone syncs on a user selected schedule from once a day to continuously however, oddly, the iPhone won’t sync continuously over WiFi; probably a power consumption concern.
In use, the iPhone is as flexible as any ActiveSync capable device from Microsoft; calendars, meetings, email and contacts can all be manipulated from the unit; meetings can be booked, attendees assembled from the local or Exchange contacts, respondents processed, contacts can be added and edited, email can be moved around and deleted, now on-mass via a logical edit function in the email client that allows you to select all your junk items quickly then delete them in one action. It really works and as a seasoned dependant on these features it’s like having my Assistant come back off vacation, no more “What was I supposed to be doing this afternoon?”!
And the rest:
The rest of the platform changes are evolutionary rather than revolutionary; there’s a scientific calculator for the hard sums, CISCO VPN support to enhance office connectivity. Two additions merit further study:
Parental controls are a worthy addition; they’re a bit draconian though gating access to iTunes, App Store, YouTube, Safari and explicit iPod content. Other than the iPod it’s a bit all or nothing so, I can’t set my sons iPhone to allow YouTube access but with no naughty stuff; that’s what I was hoping for.
Embedded in iTunes is the App Store, the (only) place that you can download new applications for the iPhone. On the face of it, this seems like the holy grail; the Mecca that we should all be drawn to for now we can make our iPhones do anything!
There has been much speculation about the applications that are allowed and one fear was that anything that Steve Jobs thinks is unreasonable would be blocked so, from the start; no resident background IM clients, no console applications and certainly no sim unlocks! The last seems reasonable but the first two less so and that has been the focus of huge negative speculation. The reality though is far from it, to maintain reliability of the platform the applications are vetted by Apple before inclusion in the App Store then digitally signed to ensure that Apple can revoke or update an application when they discover that it has a hidden back door to unlock sims! They have barred resident applications that run in the background to manage battery life and network traffic but in exchange they’ve provided a free push notification framework that not only allows IM to work but in fact, work very well, far better than any existing IM clients on the other platforms today.
That leaves the other applications, the ones that I or my friends build; how do I install those? Well, Apple has an answer for that; the software development kit allows me to share my applications with up to 100 friends without a need to move them to the App Store; this way I can build anything that I like; I’m a grown-up, I appreciate the decision myself; I might want to run with scissors.
What didn’t make the cut:
Cut/Copy/Paste: this is still missing. In the main, most uses of the clipboard have been catered for with buttons for ‘Send this as email’, ‘call this number’ and ‘save to contacts’ but I still wish I could move paragraphs around at will in an email.
Video camera: A staple on most platforms now but still missing; I won’t miss it myself, my friends and I never get drunk enough to have need of it.
Contacts on the home screen: The iPhone has a Contacts.app application that launches contacts from the home page rather than forcing you to go through the phone app first. When I call someone I think person-> phone, not phone then person so for me seeking the person first made sense.
Bluetooth: Support for Bluetooth devices like stereo headsets and external keyboards; not big perhaps but A2DP would be ever-so-nice for a music oriented phone.
iPhone review; reset
Now that the iPhone can be classed as ‘ready for business’, how does it compare to the established players like the RIM Blackberry and the Windows Mobile offerings?
Some would argue that the iPhone has to be good; it’s just hit the number two spot behind RIM as the largest single US Smartphone manufacturer for Q1 2008 producing 20% of the supply (still ½ of the 42% share that RIM has). With that many iPhones finding their way into business the security and management needs to be top notch.
The iPhone has just become business ready and that reflects in the execution; there are many features in the other two ‘worlds’ that have been finessed; tuned to be obvious to use and as efficient as possible; features like contact search on Windows mobile and email search on the Blackberry. The iPhone is still finessing those features as we’ve seen in the email ‘group delete’ that arrives in this new firmware but, the iPhone comes from an established heritage of iPods where ease of use and stylish execution is at the forefront, this it brings and applies to the business features; sometimes I feel as though I’m being talked down to with limited command choices and friendly graphics, other times I’m being given the red carpet treatment with flowing animations and slick features. In summary, it’s an iPod that does business email and in that light, it’s great, it’s compelling to use and one of those tools that you pick up just because it’s there; something that you don’t really do with a Blackberry. What you do do with a Blackberry or a Windows Mobile device though is type out emails and despite the practise I can’t go quite as fast on the iPhones soft keyboard as I can with the hard keyboard on the others.
What if I’m not a business user?
I’ve been looking at the firmware 2.0 update from a perspective of a business user, now it’s time to take off the tie, and, well, this update is awesome; and it’s all down to the App Store. Games like Super Monkey Ball are brilliantly implemented; tools like the eBay plug in are great; location based services create features like “Where am I and where are my friends, anyone close?” and the audio sub-system make applications like ‘Band’ from Cow Music (aka Mark Terry, a part time programmer in the UK) literally sing and dance.
It’s the combination of usability, the interface, Internet access anywhere and always, location detection and enough CPU power to beat up on most dedicated handheld games consoles. I can see a lot of user-choosers switching to the iPhone very, very quickly.
And email sync if I don’t have Exchange? The answer is MobileMe a new Apple service that sits in the cloud and provides all of the shared features you’d expect from Exchange.
The updates are interesting when looked at them in isolation but the sum is significant; in short we now have business worthy iPhone that will stick with when you go off the clock.