Applications for the iPhone represent one of the device's best features for both business users and consumers. With nearly 1,000 iPhone applications available from the App Store within two weeks of its launch, the iPhone has moved from smart phone to mobile computing platform in a big way. For many business environments, the ability to install applications for tracking sales, managing projects, developing outlines, and so forth will be a major feature. For others, the ability to create custom in-house applications using Apple's iPhone SDK that access existing databases and other technology resources will be a powerful function.
Both these capabilities present interesting challenges to companies looking at the iPhone as a mobile device—either because of the time required to build and test in-house applications or because of the logistical challenges of maintaining software inventory on company-owned iPhones. While the subject of developing and distributing in-house applications is too broad to cover here, Apple has provided a solid set of developer tools. (For proof, you need only look at some of the third-party apps out there.) Apple also has provided options for companies to distribute in-house applications outside of the App Store.
Since all iPhone applications must be digitally signed, in-house applications rely on a combination of techniques for enterprise deployment. First, you must register your company with Apple and sign your applications with a provided certificate. Then you need to create a second type of profile called a provisioning profile, using the iPhone Configuration Utility. Provisioning profiles authorize iPhones and iTunes to install and run applications signed with your Apple-provided certificate.
While effective, this plan presents some problems, in that iTunes still needs to be used as a conduit for deployment. Also, since iTunes needs to be provisioned to install applications, you must deploy the appropriate files to clients as well as deploying the actual application files. This technique hardly represents the simplest solution for wide-scale deployment. Indeed, the combination of requirements actually points to the use of a central IT configuration and distribution of iPhones as a choice in addition to the activation considerations discussed earlier.
Third-party applications also present challenges in that there currently is no clear site-licensing or volume-licensing approach to the App Store. Likewise, the tying of App Store purchases (and even free applications are treated as purchases) to user Apple IDs like songs from the iTunes Store presents challenges in larger organizations, which will want to consolidate purchasing and installation of software rather than allowing users to register with their own personal Apple IDs for purchases. On the other hand, so long as iPhones are centrally managed by IT, this can avoid making it feasible for users to purchase and install unapproved applications.
The iPhone has a lot of potential as a business device, but it also presents some unique challenges in being implemented effectively in larger environments. Apple has managed to address some of the core concerns of large-scale adoption in enterprise environments, but still has some work to do in terms of providing deployment and overall management mechanisms that will scale well. Ironically, smaller businesses may find the iPhone's set of features and the more consumer-oriented aspects of its reliance iTunes more easily adoptable than larger organizations would do.