by Tom Kaneshige

iPhone Wins Over the Tech Crowd

May 11, 2010
CarriersCIOConsumer Electronics

IT staffers at Special Devices swapped BlackBerrys for iPhones because new apps make their jobs easier. And with more enterprise features expected from iPhone OS 4.0 this summer, Apple's smartphone is in an even better position to drive deeper into the enterprise.

Special Devices’ great iPhone adventure began at the most unlikely place: inside the IT department. Techies in the Windows and BlackBerry shop warmed to the game-changing Apple phone with its big touchscreen, single button and ever-growing number of smart apps.

“The iPhone went from a cool consumer device to an IT tool,” says Shane Allen, information systems manager at Special Devices, a manufacturer of air-bag initiators for the automotive industry. “Once it crossed that barrier, I got rid of the BlackBerrys for my staff and gave them all iPhones.”

Shane Allen of Special Devices

iPhones have only scratched the surface in most enterprises, where they’re often brought in by C-level executives. Consequently, IT departments have reluctantly had to support iPhones even though management tools for these devices weren’t enterprise ready, nor was the phone itself.

But now iPhones are poised to make a big enterprise push. For starters, iPhone OS 4.0 is expected to hit the streets this summer, bringing a host of enterprise features with it, including multi-tasking and better security and management. Perhaps more importantly, the iPhone has also been quietly winning the hearts and minds of IT folks, as it did at Special Devices.

Take that, Windows!

Headquartered in Mesa, Ariz., Special Devices makes 1.2 million airbag initiators (a kind of pencil eraser-sized firing pin) every week and ships them to customers around the world. A four-person IT staff supports some 500 employees using mostly Windows, VMware and Cisco gear on the back end.

Special Devices had just gone through a rough patch, reorganizing under Chapter 11 last year. The stressed-out IT department has had to overhaul IT infrastructure, consolidate datacenters, embrace virtualization and draw down its staff from eight to four. “We’re responsible for everything with a blinking light,” Allen says.

It was also about a year ago when Allen decided to reward himself for all of his hard work and to build up what he calls his “phone cred” by splurging on the most hyped consumer tech gadget.

Allen’s iPhone quickly grew beyond a toy for playing games and texting. The first sign that the iPhone could be used as an enterprise tool, Allen says, was the emergence of third-party apps with built-in VPN connectivity. “I could securely connect back to my network via VPN and could view some internal network management Web pages,” Allen says.

(Last week, Allen and other CIOs visited Microsoft to learn about Windows Phone 7, and Allen asked Microsoft whether or not it will support third-party apps with built-in VPN. “They wouldn’t answer that question,” Allen says, adding, “I said, ‘Guys, if it doesn’t have that, why would I get it?'”)

iPhone Apps for the Techie

Then came more apps for IT workers: apps that ping different parts of the network, scanning apps, WinAdmin apps, even apps for remote desktop protocol (RDP). Allen could now remote control a PC or server with the iPhone using apps that support Telnet and SSH. “You need a good quality app to remotely control your network,” says Allen.

A few weeks ago, Allen struck gold in the App Store. “I found Rove Mobile Admin, and that changed the world,” he says. “With this app, I can manage almost every portion of our network. I can make a secure connection and manage Active Directory, Virtual Center, SQL, and I can RDP, all from this one app.”

Allen says Rove Mobile app for the iPhone is free, but the backend software costs around $600 per admin.

Shortly after setting up Rove Mobile Admin, Allen received a frantic call in the early morning at his home from an executive who was locked out of his account. Allen unlocked it from his iPhone within 30 seconds, and without disrupting breakfast with his family.

After experiencing the potential of the iPhone as an IT tool, Allen replaced his IT staff’s BlackBerrys with iPhones i. “The BlackBerry is primarily just an email and messaging phone, whereas the iPhone does this and much more,” he says.

It didn’t take long for the CFO—the IT department reports to the CFO—to want an iPhone, too. Now he’s a big iPhone fan, even though on a recent business trip to Germany he didn’t have connectivity while his traveling partner, the CEO, who carries a BlackBerry, did.

Only a handful of executives at Special Devices get an iPhone. That’s because IT discourages iPhone adoption. It may seem unfair that an IT department using iPhones isn’t a fan of iPhones in the hands of other employees, but Allen and his staff have good reason to keep iPhones in the province of IT.

Broken iPhones, Two-Year Contracts, Dead Batteries

The road to the iPhone was somewhat paved, given that Special Devices already contracts with AT&T (exclusive carrier of the iPhone) for its BlackBerrys. Nevertheless, Special Devices would have to deal with the complexities of the iPhone’s two-year, locked-in contracts for many individuals if it allowed greater iPhone adoption.

AT&T and Apple also don’t offer accidental coverage, despite the fact that the iPhone glass and plastic can break if dropped. “If you give people a free phone, they tend not to treat them well,” Allen says. “Drop it, and we have to buy another one at full price. But you can drop kick a BlackBerry or candy bar phone or flip phone.”

IT staff puts their iPhones into thick cases to guard against drops, as well as have Mophie Juice Packs to make sure the iPhone battery lasts throughout the day. Both change the form factor, says Allen, “and some people don’t like that.”

Another sticky point: When iPhone issues crop up, Allen has to deal with Apple, which isn’t known for its warm and fuzzy embrace of the enterprise. “AT&T can only take problems to a point before it crosses into Apple’s territory,” Allen says. “AT&T has more experience with BlackBerrys and will troubleshoot them further down the road.”

Waiting for iPhone 4.0

The biggest roadblock to iPhone enterprise adoption concerns management of the device. Sure, an array of iPhone management apps have hit the market, but all lack one critical feature: the ability to run in the background (without the end user allowed to terminate it) for always-on management.

This feature would allow Allen to “kill” an iPhone remotely anytime. “I can kill it with MobileMe, but that’s a consumer-based service, not an enterprise-based service,” he says. “Will the device manager from Microsoft be able to kill them? I don’t know yet. I need that background app.”

iPhone 4.0 is supposed to fix this with multi-tasking support for third-party apps. Exactly how well this feature will work remains to be seen. But the door is open for the iPhone to make a big push into the enterprise, Allen says.

In fact, Special Devices wants to rid itself of BlackBerrys. “The way that iPhones connect to our network, we don’t have to pay for a license because it’s included in our Microsoft Exchange licensing,” explains Allen. “With BlackBerrys, we run our own BlackBerry server and each one of those BlackBerry users costs the company a seat on that server.”

Can iPhone 4.0 lead to better emulation of the type of control that, say, Microsoft Active Sync has over a Windows mobile phone or the BlackBerry Enterprise Server has over a BlackBerry?

“If so, it’s going to be hard for IT to say, ‘We don’t want to have too many of these iPhones,'” Allen says. He adds, “As iPhones become more prevalent and have more enterprise features, I can see BlackBerry users wanting to hop off.”

Tom Kaneshige is a senior writer for in Silicon Valley. Send him an email at Or follow him on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline.