The buzz on the iPhone as more of a business tool continues, as PCWorld announced yesterday that Apple has released the iPhone Software Development Kit (SDK) which provides developers with the same tools Apple uses to develop applications for the iPhone. Previously, third party developers could only write apps that could run through Apple’s Safari web browser. The money is also supposedly there to encourage the development of third party apps. A venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has said it is starting a $100 million “iFund” to finance startups developing applications for the iPhone.

Apple may well have realized (or always did, and is just announcing it now) that the iPhone needed to be more than a great “gotta have” consumer phone; it had to be a business tool as well to make it in the long haul. CNNMoney.com reports that Apple is going after the BlackBerry in a big way. iPhone enterprise chief Phil Schiller has stated that,

“iPhone will have network and information security features similar to BlackBerry devices in conjunction with Cisco. This would allow users and IT departments to perform similar functions that the BlackBerry does like swiping clean the devices if they are lost or stolen.”

How much of this is talk (i.e. vaporware) and how much is “for real” remains to be seen, and even then, what has been announced is not without its downsides.

TechCrunch has reported on several drawbacks of the SDK that may limit the functionality of these third party apps. Among these drawbacks are:

  • VOIP services are still not available. Users can access the Internet only via wifi, not the cell networks;
  • SIM unlocking is still not allowed, which continues to limit the iPhone to usage on the AT&T network;
  • Developers can’t modify data from any other applications; and
  • Users can only run one application at a time, and if they leave an application it quits.

That last one is big if you think about it. Ever since Windows conquered text-based DOS users have been able to multitask. That does not appear to be possible for third party apps on the iPhone, however.

The bottom line on this product is still the one I asked when I first posted on this product, when does wow=roi? Larry Dignan discusses just that in his blog on ZDnet. This article surmised that it is the small firms like ours that are likely to switch from RIM’s BlackBerry because the cost of a total switch to another product is not as high (what the post described as “a lower inertia hurdle.”) It did identify four factors to look at in making the ROI determination:

  • Volume discounts. Apple isn’t known for competitive low prices, and the BlackBerry is still cheaper overall. This divide gets bigger the more phones you need to get for your firm;
  • Support Cost. How much easier is the iPhone to use than a BlackBerry? How does this picture change if only some of your staff use the iPhone, while others have BlackBerries and Windows Mobile smartphones?
  • Carrier Limitation (AT&T). What is the cost of switching carriers (or having more than one carrier) for cell phones?
  • A Killer App. The easiest way for wow to equal roi is for the iPhone to have a killer, must-have app for the business (or legal) world. That app (or apps) alone may well outweigh the other three issues.

Without question, the iPhone is still a product in transition. Many things need to happen and become real in the marketplace before the iPhone becomes a serious business tool, let alone a challenge for the BlackBerry or other smart phones. Again, time will tell, and perhaps by the iPhone’s first “birthday,” it will be worth a try. In the meantime, take all the hype with a proverbial “grain of salt.”

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