The iPhone is ready for business but are businesses ready for the iPhone?

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Earlier this week, over at FierceMobileEnterprise, I wondered what enterprise announcements Apple had in store for its town hall iPhone event. While I felt like Lotus Notes support was a strong possibility given recent rumors, I characterized the announcement of the iPhone's most wanted business feature--Exchange Server support--"highly unlikely." Oh, how wrong I was. As you'll see in today's issue, there's no Lotus Notes support (yet) but the iPhone now supports Microsoft Exchange and Activesync, not to mention push email, certificates, identities, Cisco IPsec VPN, WPA2/802.1x, remote security administration and even remote wipe.

I don't think that anyone expected Apple to get so serious about enterprise users so quickly. However, the motivation is clear. The company aims to sell 10 million iPhones in 2008 and with consumer momentum slowing, they're going to have to court the biggest smartphone buyers: businesses. Now, this isn't going to be easy--vendors like Microsoft, RIM and Palm have been entrenched in the enterprise sector for years and unseating them will take more than just a touchscreen and some colorful icons.

That's not to say that Apple didn't do its homework. Skimming over the list of enterprise features set to arrive with version 2.0 of the iPhone firmware in June, it's hard to think of anything that Apple left out--it really does seem like the company listened to its business customers. And even though licensing Activesync certainly required that Mr. Jobs swallow his pride just a bit, it seems that he ultimately bowed to the pressure, knowing that Exchange support would make or break the device's enterprise potential.

No, the question isn't whether or not the iPhone is ready for the enterprise--I believe that it will be once the new firmware arrives--the question is whether or not the enterprise is ready for the iPhone. The iPhone is expensive, has the potential to be used for non-work-related tasks (YouTube! iPod!) and worst of all, has the attached stigma of being a consumer device. In an article for ZDnet, Larry Dignan summed up Apple's challenge quite simply: "Apple will need a compelling ROI case if it's going to upend Research in Motion."

He's absolutely right. No matter what features the iPhone brings to the table, CIOs aren't even going to consider the device unless they smell a potential ROI. And the fact of the matter is that, at least currently, the ROI case for the iPhone is a difficult case to make. No matter what sort of discounts Apple and AT&T offer to businesses, they're not going to be able to undercut Microsoft, RIM and the other carriers.

So what's there left to do? Apple's only option is to demonstrate to businesses that there will be some sort of return on the iPhone, even if it's not immediately apparent or monetary in nature. Maybe the device's Salesforce.com app will increase the sales team's productivity. Maybe a native AIM app will allow execs to stay in touch while traveling. Or maybe the device's support for Office file formats will mean that you're never stuck without a critical Powerpoint presentation again. Would you consider deploying iPhones in your organization? Why or why not? And what applications and features do you hope to see in June? Hit us up in the comments and let us know. -Mehan