Thursday, May 7, 2009

iPhone and BlackBerry Engage in App-to-App Combat

iPhone maker Apple and BlackBerry vendor Research in Motion are exchanging high-caliber bursts in the form of tantalizing new mobile applications in their desperate efforts to woo new users. Recent figures show that underdog BlackBerry is not just making it a close fight, but could emerge victorious.

When Apple launched the iPhone, most observers saw it as a purely consumer device that would never get traction in the enterprise because it lacked adequate security features, didn’t have native integration with business email servers and didn’t host applications needed by executives and so-called knowledge workers to perform their functions on the go.

It seemed likewise unlikely that business users would carry two devices, so it seemed a forgone conclusion that the iPhone would be the province of stay-at-home professionals, college students and tweens lucky enough to have parents willing to spend upwards of $500 for what amounted to little more than a toy.

Fast-forward two years, and the iPhone supports Microsoft Exchange and IBM Domino, the two most dominant enterprise email servers, and business applications galore. Moreover, IT professionals underestimated the pressure they would be under from gadget-addicted c-level executives to connect their iPhones to the corporate firewall. Think Obama was obstinate about keeping his BlackBerry? That was nothing compared to the passion of business executives for the iPhone, which turns out to have appeal far beyond expectations. You have to wonder whether the same observers — Gartner in particular — who in 2007 dismissed the iPhone as an enterprise tool changed their tune in 2008 because they were truly convinced, or if they saw themselves being overtaken by the tide of history.

BlackBerry was slow to respond, but respond it has, first with an app store much like iTunes, with music to boot, and then with an increasing variety of new handsets that mimicked the iPhone pretty closely, down to the touchscreen. In fact, BlackBerry was criticized for the Storm because it ditched the familiar trackball navigation in favor of a clumsy version of the touchscreen, but promises the next version will be better. In the meantime, it is continuing to roll out the red carpet for developers to create yet more applications, including one that supports the mother of all consumer applications, Twitter.

The iPhone also has become more hospitable territory for business, as illustrated by recent support for the iPhone from database vendor FileMaker and enterprise software vendor Citrix, which makes software that allows customers to use desktop applications remotely.

In the final analysis, though, BlackBerry has an advantage that iPhone will find difficult to overcome: it doesn’t have an albatross named AT&T. Yes, you can get a BlackBerry on the AT&T network, but you can also get one on just about any network you choose in the U.S., including Verizon, which is reputed to have the most reach. BlackBerry also has a head start over iPhone in terms of integrated business applications like expense approval technology from IBM and SAP, but that advantage may be short-lived.

This is why Apple is surely planning to roll out a larger, more robust version of the iPhone that can replace many laptops. Apple COO Tim Cook may have recently disparaged netbooks as inelegant and feature-poor, but he may have simply been doing that so he could introduce a new device in the near future while saying, “see, this is how it’s done.”

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