Is Your Email-Management Strategy Ready for the iPhone?

Updated: April 30, 2009

Employees are skipping work to get an iPhone, but network administrators may not have the tools to provide the enterprise support necessary to roll out Apple's hot new device to its users. Although employees will be able to retrieve email securely, the iPhone lacks ActiveSynch, which enables the hot device to sync calendar and contact information with a PC.

"Rumor was, the iPhone would have ActiveSynch built in," said Rurik Bradbury, vice president of marketing for Intermedia Inc, a company that offers hosted email to small and medium businesses.

Because the rumors proved untrue, the company is holding off on its plans to offer hosted email services for the iPhone. "Without ActiveSynch or advanced syncing, it's not worth it," said Bradbury.

Without ActiveSynch built in, the iPhone can't perform advanced syncing capabilities that its smartphone competitors have been doing for years. Any phone that uses the Windows operating system including those from Palm, Motorola and Nokia uses Microsoft Exchange's ActiveSynch to synchronize calendar meetings and contact information between employees' desktop PCs and their mobile devices. Research in Motion's (RIM) BlackBerry even has its own standard for synchronization that makes it ideal for corporate use.

Microsoft recently released an update for Exchange, called Rollout 3, that fixed some basic synchronization problems with Apple products and lets IMAP function on the iPhone. This means that the iPhone, at least, has push email capability, so users can retrieve messages from Microsoft Exchange mailboxes remotely, without having to refresh their inbox manually.

"If the employees want to listen to music, watch movies and travel, it's fine, but for business email, the iPhone is not the best device to have," said Bradbury.

But not all third-party providers are waiting around for ActiveSynch. "Executives and workers want a choice in the device they use, and if there are executives that want to use the iPhone, our solution will work with them," said Haniff Somani, vice president and chief architect at Visto Corp., an enterprise email messaging solution provider in Seattle that is currently testing its new iPhone plan.

The company anticipates releasing a push email service for the iPhone at the end of Q3 2007. Visto plans to offer a downloadable desktop client for Microsoft Outlook and an enterprise server, which will work with the iPhone, other smartphones and feature-poor phones as well.

"There's no need to buy a solution that's restricted to a single device," said Somani.

Fueling Innovation

Somani acknowledges that a major drawback is the lack of ActiveSynch, but he says for his company, that's a good thing. Visto is testing alternate ways that iPhone users can retrieve information on the go. "We're looking at using the Web 2.0 developer site that Apple just announced for the iPhone to create widgets that allow you to browse or view your corporate address book," Somani said.

"We've been doing internal testing and have good results," he said.

Neither Somani nor Bradbury can tell whether Apple will include ActiveSynch in future versions of the iPhone.

"Almost 60 percent of world is now using MS Exchange. Apple would open up a huge market of business," Bradbury said. "People are furiously arguing about what's going to happen."

"It makes sense [to use AppleSynch] because the infrastructure is in place," said Somani. "Unfortunately that's a one-trick pony because it limits you to Microsoft Exchange. In Europe, and also in very large enterprises in the United States, the user base is Domino."

IBM's Domino enterprise email server owns a large share of the market. "Right now the market share is fifty-fifty worldwide, so you're cutting out half the market if you only take the ActiveSynch approach," Somani said. However, he noted that Domino's synchronization capability is not as predominant as Microsoft's.

Is Three a Crowd?

According to Bradbury, three main types of business email synchronization exist specifically for mobile devices today - Motorola's Good Technology, RIM's BlackBerry software and Windows' Mobile ActiveSynch. Bradbury said that some people are speculating that BlackBerry software may be licensed to run on the iPhone or that Good Technology might launch a product that would fill the niche.

Bradbury said he personally uses a Windows Mobile handheld that updates instantly when he makes a change on his computer. "It's such a convenience," he said. "I can't imagine going back to manual synchronization."

If users want to forego the synchronization technology in favor of the iPhone's benefits, Somani said one thing they don't need to worry about is security concerns. "We use secure IMAP and secure SMTP, as well as secure SSL. There's a translation step in the server in the datacenter," he said.

If a corporation goes with a Visto enterprise server, the server can also encrypt messages, and the devices will automatically decrypt them using the native IMAP standard, said Somani.

Visto hasn't yet settled on a pricing model but might sell individual plans directly to end users. Intermedia also plans to sell directly to individuals.

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