Since its United States release in late June, the Apple iPhone has found a happy home in countless pockets, due in no small part to its innovate and intuitive touch-screen-based user interface (UI).
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And though the device's potential as a business tool has been questioned since its introduction—perhaps most notably because Apple doesn't currently offer a secure "push" e-mail application that integrates with Microsoft Exchange or other corporate mail environments—the true value of its unique UI to enterprises has yet to be realized.
That may soon be changing. Frank Mahdavi, chief strategy officer at MIR3, a provider of intelligent notification applications, says he firmly believes the iPhone will find its place in the enterprise, and MIR3 is banking on that assumption with its new iPhone- and iPod touch-based notification and command interface.
The new iPhone-based intelligent notification application, which became available Nov. 5, enables IT administrators and corporate executives to create, manage, send and receive wireless notifications, all from an Apple iPhone or iPod touch device.
A Beginning Step for iPhone Business Apps
MIR3's application represents a beginning step for the iPhone as an enterprise device, because it's one of the first external applications that takes advantage of both the devices' unique hardware and software to enhance a business-specific program. Apple has announced that it plans to release a software developer’s kit (SDK) by February 2008, that will enable external developers to create applications for the iPhone.
For his part, Mahdavi acknowledges that corporate IT has been skeptical of the iPhone’s value as an end-user tool. "Since the iPhone first came out, IT organizations have been wary about the device finding its way into corporate environments without sanction," Mahdavi says.
Even so, given the attention paid to the iPhone launch and features, MIR3 predicted that C-level staffers would actually be the first folks to visit their IT departments with iPhones and requests for network access. So the company decided on the iPhone as the handheld on which it would initially offer its new intelligent notification management application.
"We felt that by putting our application on the iPhone we'd get a lot of exposure at the executive level," which would, in turn, boost corporate acceptance of the device, Mahdavi says. While MIR3 did not wait for Apple to release an iPhone developer’s kit, he says it was a motivating factor in his company’s decision to release its application on the iPhone now.
An avid iPhone user himself, Mahdavi cites the device's form factor as a reason why MIR3 chose to first release its new application on the iPhone.
"The iPhone is a notification machine," he says. "Though Apple didn't invent anything new [with the iPhone,] it brought in existing technologies and mashed them up into a very slick, very small profile device with a large, touch sensitive, high resolution screen. Just try to do some of the things the iPhone lets you do on a Palm Treo. You can't because you don't have enough real estate. Apple brought everything into a small form factor and you don't even need a stylus."
Systems for Business Continuity Calls
San Diego-Calif.-based MIR3 has been a player in the intelligent notification space since 1999. Various firms, government organizations, universities and non-profits, including 87 of the Global Fortune 100, the U.S. Air Force, Brown University and the American Red Cross, use MIR3 technologies for business continuity, disaster recovery, operations and facilities management, and end-user notifications.
MIR3 offers applications that "interactively" function with any text- or voice-based communication device. That interactivity includes what Mahdavi calls "actionable delivery," or the ability to communicate back and forth instead of simple one-way communication between an administrator and a notification recipient.
For instance, in an emergency management setting, IT administrators can use the MIR3 application to designate specific users or employees to a group, create a customized notification for that group and then send messages with specific questions like "Is everything all right in your office building?" Members of the group can then respond with preset commands like "yes," "no, we need help." Responses can then be employed to perform a number of automated tasks such as connecting recipients to a conference call or sending specific information based on their responses. And administrators can then immediately act on the information delivered to, say, send help to a particular location.
The new iPhone based application is different than MIR3's previous offerings because it not only enables IT administrators or other corporate executives to send and receive IT alerts or emergency communications using a mobile device, it also allows them to create and manage distribution of such notifications, as well as act on them, with a few taps of an iPhone or iPod touch.
"What we envision is this: An IT person is sitting watching movies at home when a corporate server goes down. Our Web-services API sends a notification saying the server is down, and then on an iPhone the IT employee opens up a portal, logs in and reboots the server," Mahdavi says. This scenario would replace an IT staffer having to fire up a PC and network management application to get the fallen server up and running again.
Why iPhone and not a Treo or BlackBerry?
Why go with the iPhone first and not a BlackBerry- or Palm Treo-based application?
"[The iPhone's] ease of use is essential," Mahdavi says. "During emergency management you're adrenaline is pumping, you're not thinking clearly and you probably won't be as effective" as in a normal situation. This is where the simple, intuitive iPhone IU proves to be particularly valuable, according to Mahdavi.
It's also worth noting that though MIR3's mobile phone-based notification management application is currently available only to iPhone users, the company is working on similar applications for BlackBerrys and Treos, which it expects to be available in 2008.
Roberta Witty, a research vice president in Gartner's security risk group, has been following MIR3 for a few years, and though she's as of yet unfamiliar with the company's iPhone-based notification application, she's not convinced enterprises are going to being placing orders for iPhones just so they can use them for IT alerts or emergency notification.
"To me whether it's an iPhone or any other cell phone, it's just another end point. It's just one more device," Witty says. "Are people going to run out to buy an iPhone for business continuity? After 9/11 lots of people went out and bought BlackBerrys or Treos, but the iPhone in particular, who knows?"
Witty’s skepticism follows along with the conventional wisdom that enterprise IT departments are hesitant to adopt Apple’s mobile phone because it represents a lot of systems administrative work; plus it’s security remains relatively untested for the corporate market.
A Consumer Device with Business Potential
Wireless expert Maribel Lopez, a vice president and principal analyst with research firm Forrester, says she sees the value in Apple’s mobile user interface for business applications.
Lopez thinks the iPhone's touch screen UI could be valuable to organizations looking to run business-specific applications on the device, assuming the structure of the applications is designed or redesigned to take advantage of the interface.
"Applications designed for use on a device like the iPhone will have more direct access to processes," Lopez says. In other words, such apps could be designed to have faster access to pertinent data or to complete a process more easily than devices with other user interfaces. "This means end users will be able to find, use and understand the features out of the box without extensive training,” Lopez says. “If you can get employees to use those applications without extensive training, it is a huge win for businesses."
Lopez says the iPhone's UI could be particularly well suited to run applications that require users to fill out forms, close out help desk tickets, or retrieve information on clients or locations. Physicians or nurses could also benefit from an iPhone-based app that enables them to manage patient health records via an iPhone or iPod touch. "The iPhone could be treated like a tablet without the pen," Lopez says.
As for Mahdavi's vision of the iPhone as a business tool outside of intelligent notification, he enthusiastically states that Apple is only beginning its entry into the mobile enterprise space. "The first step is the upcoming software development kit (SDK), so developers can create applications that run indigenously on the device. Security enhancements will likely come soon after," he says.
Whether or not you, like Mahdavi, believe Apple and its iPhone stand a chance in the competitive mobile enterprise space—and there’s been no shortage of skeptical voices on this issue—it's worth keeping in mind the device has only been available in the United States for four months.
One thing is for certain: the iPhone has certainly piqued the interest of corporate executives, and as Apple and external developers develop new applications, the device's potential value to businesses and their enterprise users only increases.