Plugging iPhones into small businesses

By James E. Gaskin, Network World |  Mobile & Wireless, iPhone 3G

Apple's iPhone drew criticism when first released because of tepid enterprise business support. Small businesses felt the pain of iPhone envy more sharply than their enterprise counterparts because of the high up front cost of the first iPhone and the back-end support requirements for high-end e-mail and communication servers.

But the second generation of iPhones, the new 3G version, answers almost all these issues. Costs are down to below what many people pay for other smart phones. Integration to existing e-mail servers is faster and easier. Yet those back-end servers still require heavy investment up front and technical support later, especially when loading up a new Microsoft Exchange 2007 server.

Let's talk about two options for the small business iPhone users who are eager to get full smart phone and mobile computing advantages from their new shiny faced toy, er, iPhone. Neither option includes Microsoft Exchange, saving money and time while supporting the miracle of communication (at least according to Apple).

Jeffrey Bernstein is the president of Digital Desktop Consulting in Los Angeles, a firm with ties to the entertainment business. As such, Bernstein is a long-time Macintosh user and advocate, and supports many customer offices filled with Macintosh systems. Bringing iPhone support to his clients was not an option but a demand.

“We're hands on and act like an outsourced IT department for our customers,” Bernstein says. “Many are the unsung heroes in media, like graphics designers or flash programmers who's work you see on every TV show and many Web sites.” Most companies he supports employee 10 to 60 people, and Digital Desktop Consulting provides services ranging from occasional visits for new installations to complete support of all office and production computing.

How does Bernstein support iPhones for his customers? By using MailServer from Kerio Technologies. MailServer provides all the messaging features of Exchange for less money and requires fewer add-ons for security and messaging support. In addition, MailServer software runs on Windows, Linux or Apple servers. Bernstein has installed 30 or so systems and provides constant remote management for about 10 of them.

“Many of our customers are moving to the iPhone from Palms and BlackBerries,” Bernstein says. “BlackBerry support requires the Blackberry Exchange Server and iPhones avoid that extra cost. Plus, most of my customers use Macs so they're more comfortable with the look of the iPhone.”

Kerio's MailServer includes over the air synchronization, push e-mail, push tasks, and push calendaring. Another nice feature is “remote wipe” that allows a network administrator to delete all information from a lost iPhone. “Three of my customers lost their phones last week,” Bernstein says.

Bernstein was the first Mac reseller to sign up with Kerio. Early on he called them regularly pushing for changes and new features, but hasn't made those calls for the last two years. “My customers appreciate the stability, ease of use and support for multiple platforms. Kerio actually has feature parity, which a lot of others don't.”

Another option for iPhone support is a hosted mail provider. There are scores of companies that provide Microsoft Exchange support, now including Microsoft (and it is promising to add more hosted options in the future). Well, scores understates the number of options a bit. Searching on “iphone exchange hosting service” turned up 346,000 listings.

With those numbers, picking an Exchange host to pay along with the higher AT&T rates on the iPhone 3G becomes an almost overwhelming choice. I suggest you leverage as many features as possible of your new iPhone, and get as many other advantages as you can.

A hosted collaboration service I've talked about before, HyperOffice, added iPhone support to its Exchange hosting service, but it added an extra twist. Since the iPhone can run applications, HyperOffice supports shared document storage and collaboration. If you can stand the iPhone keyboard, you can work on shared documents from the same source as your e-mail hosting.

The iPhone's browser support over 3G turns the Apple version of a smart phone into a real work phone with support from services like HyperOffice. Quite a switch from all the anti-business complaints Apple heard for the initial iPhone release, isn't it?

People ask me if I'm using an iPhone. Nope. Apple hasn't given me one, and I didn't expect them to. But I'm not even considering an iPhone until the QWERTY keyboard runs in landscape mode so I can use two thumbs. Now it runs in portrait mode forcing me to use one finger. Way too slow, and not at all cool.

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