By NICK WINGFIELD
July 24, 2007; Page B3
With the iPhone's hefty price tag, it is likely that big-spending business users were well-represented among the hordes who turned out to buy Apple Inc.'s cellular phone during its first weeks on sale.
Even if the bona fides of the iPhone as a business tool aren't established -- with skeptics questioning whether its security, performance and compatibility with existing business software are up to snuff -- some early adopters aren't holding back.
Some corporate users are tapping the iPhone for Web-based business applications.
Some corporate customers are using the Apple phone in place of "smartphones" such as Research in Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry and other devices that have long track records among business users. Some are even tapping into business-centric applications for tracking inventory and accounting. Business software makers such as NetSuite Inc. and Salesforce.com Inc. are marketing their applications to iPhone users and, in some cases, modifying software so it works more smoothly on Apple's device.
Brian Keare, chief operating officer of Circle of Friends LLC, a maker of hair-care and bath products for children in Santa Monica, Calif., is one customer using the iPhone for business. Though he bought it primarily to make phone calls, write emails and use the iPod entertainment functions, he decided to test the limits of the iPhone's Web browser by logging onto NetSuite, where his small company's sales, accounting and other records are kept.
To Mr. Keare's surprise, it worked flawlessly, allowing him access to all of his company information on the go. He had previously had no luck accessing NetSuite, with its complicated design, from the browser on a Blackberry or Palm Inc.'s Treo. "They choked on the Web pages," he said.
Mr. Keare's wife, Eleanor, chief executive of Circle of Friends, was so intrigued by the iPhone that she snatched it from him for a business trip to Chicago, where it helped her make a spontaneous visit to a client's store. Before going in, she was able to quickly access the client's sales records and the store manager's name -- without having to haul out her laptop. Ms. Keare is planning to buy her own iPhone.
"It's proving to be useful enough we're really going to take advantage of it and use it as a business tool," said Mr. Keare, who has stopped using his Treo.
There is a particularly good fit between the iPhone and Web-based business applications such as NetSuite. That is partly out of necessity. To protect the security of iPhones, Apple, Cupertino, Calif., is allowing independent software makers to offer iPhone applications that work only through its Web browser, not the more traditional programs that are stored and run locally on a device.
Users said the iPhone's Web browser, known as Safari, is one of the most usable on a mobile phone, with better compatibility with many Web sites. They said the large touch-sensing screen on the iPhone -- which lets users pan around a Web page and zoom in with various finger gestures -- also makes it more practical to use the Web. The iPhone is priced at $499 to $599, with a two-year commitment to wireless service through AT&T Inc.
Salesforce.com said its Web site currently works on the iPhone, and that it is modifying its software to more effectively display the site through the iPhone browser. Zimbra Inc., which makes a Web-based competitor to Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook email, calendar and contacts program, expects to offer a version of its software tailored to the iPhone next month.
Still, it is difficult to deny that Apple designed much of the iPhone for consumers, from the ability to watch YouTube videos to the music-playing functions. The fact that users must have Apple's iTunes software, with its heavy focus on entertainment, on their computers to synchronize data with an iPhone may be tough for many businesses to stomach.
Adam Gross, vice president of developer relations at Salesforce.com, believes the iPhone will follow the path of other technologies with consumer roots, like the Web browser and Adobe Systems Inc.'s Flash animation software, that were ultimately embraced by businesses. "I think the iPhone absolutely is going to have a big impact on mobile business applications," he said.
In the near term, the iPhone probably has a better shot with small businesses, where decisions about technology are more frequently based on an employee's preferences. For now, large businesses are looking more skeptically, though some are considering it.
The information-technology department at Quintiles Transnational Corp., a pharmaceutical-services company in Research Triangle Park, N.C., is testing the iPhone, including a Web-conferencing application made by Genesys Conferencing Inc. But Jonathan Shough, executive director of global network service and information technology at Quintiles, said the 18,000-person company needs better tools for managing the iPhone if the company is to deploy it broadly.
With BlackBerries, for instance, Quintiles can remotely erase emails and other sensitive data if the devices are lost or stolen. No such capability now exists for the iPhone, Mr. Shough said.
Apple declined to say whether it might offer such a feature in the future. "IPhone is a great product for all customers, businesses included," said Natalie Kerris, an Apple spokeswoman.
In a report this month, research firm Gartner Inc. discouraged large businesses from letting employees put sensitive company data such as emails on iPhones because of security concerns. While the iPhone does have some security features built into it, Ken Dulaney, a Gartner analyst, said they aren't up to most corporate standards. Visto Corp., a provider of mobile email services, said it is working on a product that will beef up email security on the iPhone for business users.
Write to Nick Wingfield at email@example.com