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Apple: It's business, it's business time

The iPhone could become much more popular inside IT departments if Apple introduces a few business-friendly features at next week's iPhone software event.

Apple is finally getting ready for the iPhone to mean business.

In its first eight months, the iPhone has been mostly a consumer phenomenon in the U.S. Apple has pitched the device by showing off its iPod capabilities, or how to search the Web for restaurant reservations and car prices, or update your status on Facebook. But next week Apple plans to show off some "exciting new enterprise" features for the iPhone, which will presumably make it easier for those of us who can't push the CIO around to use our iPhones as tools for work.

The groundwork for this movement has been taking place for some time. When Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced plans to bring out a software development kit for the iPhone in October, that paved the way for companies developing enterprise software applications--decidedly not Apple's strength--to move those applications to the OS X operating system that runs the iPhone. Also, earlier this year AT&T began allowing iPhone users to sign up for business accounts, after requiring them to use personal accounts in the early days of its service.

Getting corporate e-mail on your iPhone could become a snap by the end of next week. CNET Networks

It's not hard to imagine that a wide variety of previously skeptical iPhone customers would take a second look at the product if they realized they could use it for both work and play. The first people who widely adopted smartphones were business executives, who wanted products like Research In Motion's BlackBerry so they could have access to corporate e-mail while traveling. Phones based on Microsoft's Windows Mobile, with its ties to the Exchange e-mail software, the Office suites, and the Windows desktop, were also able to exploit the business community's need for a mobile office.

Apple's first attempt at a smartphone came from a totally different place. The company swung for the fences, and connected, with its focus on consumer-friendly features like the touch-screen user interface and videos. People who had never even considered a smartphone were drawn to the iPhone, and they made the iPhone the third-best selling smartphone in the world during the fourth quarter, only the second full quarter it was available.

So now, after demonstrating that people like its iPhone, Apple has a chance to show how practical a device it can be as well. The release of a few influential enterprise applications could provide a reason for holdouts to take the iPhone plunge, or a reason for current iPhone users to upgrade once the 3G iPhone arrives.

Most notably, the iPhone currently doesn't fully support widely used e-mail software such as Microsoft's Exchange or IBM's Lotus Notes, making it much more difficult to get the IT department to support push e-mail to your iPhone the way they would a BlackBerry or a Treo. The iPhone can work with Exchange servers with some configuration changes, but that's not something that is widely supported inside IT departments that aren't located at One Infinite Loop, Cupertino, Calif.

In an interview with's Ina Fried on Wednesday, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said licensing the Exchange protocol to Apple would be consistent with the company's practices but declined to say if in fact Apple was a licensee. Earlier this year, IBM denied several reports that it was about to announce a deal with Apple for licensing the Lotus Notes software, saying it wasn't ready to release the software. Perhaps one or both of those stances are about to change.

Peter Burrows over at BusinessWeek notes Apple could be firing a shot across RIM's bow next week if it announces full support for corporate e-mail software. RIM's BlackBerry handhelds are the second-leading smartphones in the world, and the leading product in the U.S., largely on the strength of corporate sales. Apple, however, sits just behind RIM in both markets after less than a year, almost completely on the strength of consumer sales.

RIM has been trying to break into the consumer market with products like the BlackBerry Curve, but now it might have to defend its own territory if Apple suddenly starts cuddling up to business customers. RIM has had this market largely to itself for a while, now that Palm has really fallen off the map and is focusing on getting back to basics.

Still, RIM might be able to deflect Apple's inroads into its own business by striking a deal with Apple to license the BlackBerry Connect software for iPhones. It already does this with Nokia, Samsung, and Motorola, among others.

Apple could have other enterprise features in mind for next week. It could have been working with, for example, on a version of Salesforce To Go--the company's smartphone product--for the iPhone. Maybe the iPhone will soon support reading and creating Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, adding to its read-only support for Word and Excel.

The feature perhaps most coveted by iPhone-using professionals is support for Microsoft ActiveSync, which would allow iPhone users to wirelessly sync their Outlook e-mail, contacts, and calendars with their Windows PCs, rather having to sync Outlook calendar and contacts by physically connecting your iPhone to your computer through iTunes. This would let you create a calendar appointment on the iPhone and have it automatically show up the next time you fire up Outlook on your desktop without having to mess with any cables.

There are ways to do wireless syncing between the iPhone and Outlook with unofficial third-party applications like Funambol, but IT departments don't like to support hacked software, and that version only supports contacts right now, not calendars or e-mail. Likewise, Synchronica's Web application only supports "pull" e-mail, not "push" e-mail that automatically delivers e-mail to your handset when received by your corporate e-mail server.

Until today, the details of the iPhone software development kit were the hot topic in the iPhone world. That will still be a very important development, and next week's event will provide a telling look at how Apple views the importance of third-party application development to the future of the iPhone.

But announcing deals with big third-party application developers--names like Microsoft, RIM, Adobe,, or countless other possibilities--would signal that Apple is ready to pitch the iPhone as more than just a toy. Some of the earliest criticisms of the iPhone were that it didn't support the needs of the enterprise. Those might quickly go away by the end of next Thursday.

CNET's Ina Fried contributed to this report.