Friday, March 7, 2008

iPhone improvements aimed at business users

Apple unveiled plans to make the iPhone more appealing to corporate users, in an effort to compete with the BlackBerry and greatly broaden the array of programs available for the iPhone. The idea is to construct a foundation on which software developers can create future programs, much in the same way that Microsoft's Windows operating system has become the standard for PC applications.

Apple announced the release of the Software Developers' Kit for the iPhone on Thursday, opening the door for third-party applications and games on the device. Apple addressed some of the major shortcomings of the iPhone that have limited its appeal among business users. The device has been criticized for lacking strong compatibility with corporate email systems, and many businesses have prohibited their employees from using iPhones, in large part out of security concerns. Business-friendly capabilities have helped make the BlackBerry a popular mobile email device among companies.

To compete more seriously for that audience and its huge spending power, Apple said it licensed Microsoft technology called ActiveSync, that will deliver email more immediately to iPhone users whose companies run Microsoft's Exchange corporate email software. Currently, iPhone users experience a delay in getting such email. The iPhone also will tie in with corporate contact lists and calendars so that, for example, a new appointment entered into a calendar at the office will show up on a user's iPhone.

Apple also said the iPhone will have features that make it more secure to use over wireless networks and give corporate information-technology departments better control over the devices, allowing them, for example, to remotely wipe all data from stolen or lost iPhones to protect sensitive information. The new features will be part of a free software update for the iPhone, which will be distributed over the Internet beginning in June.

Even without these capabilities, the iPhone has made inroads into the US smartphone market, nabbing the No. 2 position, with a 28% share, after the BlackBerry. But the device may need greater appeal among business users if it is to meet Apple's goal of selling 10 million iPhones this year. From the iPhone's launch in late June through early January, Apple sold more than four million iPhones.

But Apple remains a small player in the broader market for cellphones, in which more than a billion handsets are sold per year. In that field, carriers have long controlled technical standards in ways that make life difficult for software companies; programmers must make slight adjustments for individual carriers and the phones they choose.

A program developed for PCs, by contrast, typically can run on many computer makers' machines because of technical standards set by Microsoft in operating systems and Intelin microprocessor chips. Consequently, Microsoft, Intel and Google, as well as Apple have been trying to build a PC-style environment for software development in cellphones and other pocket-size communications devices. Google, for example, is trying to spur software development along with the adoption of an operating system for mobile phones called Android.

Aside from the competition, the relatively high price of the iPhone -- which starts at $399 -- makes it hard to reach a mass audience.

For Apple, a company that has focused on the consumer market for years, trying to attract business users is a special challenge. Apple's announcements included a long-awaited set of tools, called a software development kit, that will allow independent programmers to create a broad array of software, including programs to look up hospital records, and games. Several companies showed off software that they had developed in less than two weeks for the iPhone, including games publisher Electronic Arts, which showed an iPhone version of a game called Spore, in which a small amoeba-like creature devours other organisms. Players control the amoeba by using a motion-sensing controller inside the iPhone, tiling it in different directions.

Apple's Steve Jobs said Apple would act as a distributor for iPhone software, allowing it to be downloaded directly to the device or purchased on PCs though its iTunes Store and later transferred to the iPhone. Jobs said Apple will give developers 70% of whatever they charge for their iPhone applications, keeping the remaining 30% to pay for the costs of distributing the applications. He said Apple won't distribute certain types of applications for the iPhone, including pornography and anything that invades the privacy of users.

Apple also plans to place restrictions on VoIP, software for the iPhone that could let users make inexpensive calls over the Internet. Apple will allow such software to work over short-range Wi-Fi wireless connections, but not over carriers' cellular network. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

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