Is the iPhone Boom a Business Boon - Enter the Era of Mobile Collaboration?
We all know how the iPhone frenzy has grabbed popular imagination since it was first announced in January of 2007. With its cool feature set, slick appearance, powerful computing capabilities, beautiful display and intuitive touch navigation, this poster boy of the mobile generation has captured the imagination of gizmo freaks and techphobics alike. To get some measure of iPhone’s success, one only needs refer to Tim Cook’s (Apple’s COO) statement at a conference - he said that Apple had "really good confidence" the company would hit 10 million iPhones sold by the end of 2008. Actual sales figures greatly exceeded this estimate, as more than 17 m iPhones were sold by the end of 2008.
Considering the vast proliferation of iPhones in such a short span, it is natural that all those who own an iPhone would want to extend its use to business as well. And it is no joy carrying around both a Blackberry and iPhone in one's pockets. All that does is exert extra downward pressure on the belt. It is no wonder then that iPhone’s usability in a business context is a raging debate nowadays. One could also say, that the "iphone for enterprise" debate is almost a thing of the past, as companies are increasingly using the iPhone for business use. The segment that is especially expected to benefit is the small to mid sized business segment, according to a recent report by Forrester, predicting enterprise mobility developments for 2009.
The Bad News
Unfortunately for corporates, the iPhone was created mainly for the meatier consumer market, and never really meant to be a business tool.
Mainly a PIM – The iPhone mainly has PIM (personal information manager) capabilities (email, contacts, calendars, calendars, and notes) and is not meant to be used for mobile collaboration, which requires the ability to share and work together on information.
Exchange Support - Initially, the gravest ommission was a lack of support for MS Exchange, which meant that users could not get even the most basic benefits of enterprise mobility - business mobile email, Outlook email on mobile, shared mobile calendar, or group tasks on their iPhones, let alone advanced mobile collaboration. This shortcoming was rectified as the business community clamored for it, and Exchange ActiveSync support was introduced. But even with ActiveSync support, business mobility was still out of the reach of small to mid sized businesses, because it required them to have Microsoft Exchange installed on their office servers, a very expensive prospect in itself.
The Good News
Hurray for Web 2.0 - The good news is that they allowed a small window through which an elephant could be pushed. Soon after its launch, Apple announced that it would allow third party web applications supporting Web 2.0 standards to run on the iPhone through its rich Safari browser. This effectively meant that the iPhone could be part of the Web 2.0 revolution and access all the rich applications therein.
The Safari Browser – iPhone's web browser, Safari, is a full web browser with the works. It is light years ahead of the custom made web browsers of traditional corporate handhelds like Palm’s Blazer browser, Blackberry's browser, etc. It is not just comparable to a desktop browser; it is a desktop browser. This allows the iPhone to ride high on the current Web 2.0 wave, rather than just being a bystander.
"Internet-ability" - The iPhone allows internet access through wi-fi or wide area EDGE networks. One important prerequisite for a mobile device to be an effective mobile collaboration tool is the willingness and comfort level of users to use the device for web access. Thanks to the large display and Safari browser, the iPhone has been a huge success as a device for web access. The iPhone increased the average wireless data usage as much as 30 times higher than on other phones.
Along with the above, Apple has also added many business friendly features in its iPhone 3G, and there are further reports of it adding more functionality in 2009 like the ability to cut and paste, which will make it even more attractive to business users.
iPhone Web Apps to the Rescue - HyperOffice as a case in point
The combination of strengths and weaknesses of the iPhone platform made it ideal for leverage by vendors of web apps, or software as a service solutions, or "cloud" residing applications - whatever one calls them. Software-as-a-service solutions is what even desktop computing is moving towards, away from server based solutions that reigned supreme over the past almost two decades. They represent a paradigm shift in the way both consumers and businesses use information technology. The benefits they offer are undeniable - internet friendlyness, cross platform compatibility (including mobile platforms), simplicity of use and major cost savings. The powerful Safari browser on the iPhone made it ideal to be harnessed by developers of SaaS based collaboration solutions, who could now extend their reach to mobile collaboration.
Among the first companies to recognize the tremendous opportunity presented by the iPhone for rich mobile business applications was HyperOffice. Already considerably experienced in providing online collaboration solutions for small to mid sized businesses, and also mobile collaboration solutions, they developed an iPhone specific version of their popular product.
This allowed business users to use almost the entire feature set of HyperOffice right from their iPhones. Rather than an isolated personal information manager, HyperOffice allowed the iPhone to be used as a dynamic collaboration tool through which users could access their corporate email, Outlook email, company intranet, share contacts, calendars and tasks, schedule meetings, and even view and collaborate on documents.
HyperOffice also offered a getaround for companies which already have Microsoft Exchange, but dont want to go the ActiveSync way for some reason. HyperOffice can act as a bridge between Exchange and the iPhone. It allows users to receive information directly from Exchange, or access Outlook information (mail, contacts, calendars, and tasks) right on the iPhone, with or without Exchange. No matter where users access mail and other information – Outlook, iPhone’s email client or on any other web device, information is automatically synched. Users always get up-to-the-minute information.