With application developers increasingly writing for the iPhone, it might be only a matter of time before you could choose one for the job.
During a panel on mobile technologies at last fall's Interop New York conference, one of the panelists made a surprising observation: There might be more application developers for the iPhone now than there are for Microsoft Windows Mobile clients.
At the moment, that statement is hyperbole, but it might not be far off the mark. The Apple iPhone app page reveals that just more than 3,300 applications are registered. There is no central repository for Windows Mobile apps, but one directory (handster.com) lists more than 1,700. There are, however, many more apps than that.
Still, the numbers are surprising, given that the iPhone has been out for only two years, while Microsoft’s smart phone operating system has been around in many handsets — at least under its current nameplate — for six years. A glance at the market share shows the iPhone is catching up to the Windows Mobile phones, with market analyst IDC recently reporting that iPhones have about 9 percent of the smart phone market for 2008; Windows Mobile has about 12 percent. Datamonitor estimates that Apple has sold 6 million 3G iPhones since it launched the device in June 2008.
Specific numbers aside, the iPhone has raised our expectations about what users can do with mobile devices, said Interop panelist Shawne Robinson, who leads IBM Lotus Software's Mobile and Wireless Solutions division. Features such as multitouch and an easy-to-use browser have set the bar higher not only for Windows Mobile but also for operating systems from Google, Symbian and Research in Motion. Moreover, Robinson argued, the iPhone has captured the enthusiasm of the worldwide developer community in a way that Windows Mobile has largely failed to do.
So is it only a matter of time before you'll be filing your travel expenses via an iPhone? Maybe, but hurdles to organizational iPhone use remain. After all, "Apple's DNA is in the consumer space," Robinson said.
However, the General Services Administration’s Schedule 70 — specifically, account GS-35F-0297K — includes iPhone plans through AT&T, the exclusive service provider for the device. AT&T Government Solutions has three Schedule 70 contracts and can put iPhone plans on its existing Mobility contracts.
The device is suitable for government work, at least if you are just looking for basic services such as phone, Internet access, camera, e-mail, Global Positioning System-based location tracking, and Microsoft Office-based word documents and spreadsheets. The latest version of the iPhone also includes virtual private network software from Cisco, a good start for secured data communications. A recent GCN lab review found the iPhone 3G "offers great features at a fair price."
Drawbacks still hamper wide deployment, however.
One of the chief difficulties is that Apple controls which apps you can run on the phone. Anyone can write an application and then run it for Windows Mobile, which allows agencies and contractors to write specialized apps for their own needs. No such conduit exists for the iPhone. So if your boss wants you to file that travel expense form, it will have to be done via the Web browser rather than a specialized app.
Another factor is enterprise support, or the ability to support the iPhone along with all the other devices in the organization through a centralized management console. Apple offers little in the way of enterprise support, although third-party companies are starting to fill in the gap.
For instance, Zenprise has extended its software for remotely managing mobile devices to support the iPhone. It offers features such as setting up accounts for new employees and troubleshooting a malfunctioning activation or synchronization process. It gets around the Apple restrictions by not placing any applications on the device, said Ahmed Datoo, a Zenprise marketing vice president.
The iPhone uses Microsoft's ActiveSync protocol for remote management tasks. ActiveSync provides a range of commands and monitoring capabilities, such as the ability to kill the device remotely. However, Datoo said Apple has offered only a limited set of the ActiveSync's command set, which means that administrators — or the software providers developing tools on their behalf — have to create more manual procedures for communicating with these devices.
"It isn't exposing a lot of information to the administrator," Datoo said. "There is a little bit more manual work in getting device-related information back [compared to] getting information back from a Windows mobile device."
Datoo said he thinks that this is a temporary condition. "This is Apple's first foray into the enterprise side. I'd expect to see that Apple will build out more management capabilities in the next few releases and start exposing more things to IT administrators."
Zenprise is not alone in supporting the iPhone. Trust Digital has also expanded its Enterprise Mobility Management platform to include support for the Apple device. The EMM platform — which already supported an array of non-BlackBerry smart phones, including devices from Motorola, Samsung and Palm — provides centralized management tools and robust security.
GCN technology editor Patrick Marshall contributed to this report.