Can the iPhone handle Exchange e-mail?

iPhone's ability to handle corporate e-mail systems remains mediocre

Overall, the new US$600 iPhone appears to be a major advance in the state-of-the-art of 21st century gadgetry. But in one glaring area -- e-mail -- Apple's new smartphone appears downright retro.

While the iPhone will competently handle popular consumer e-mail services such as Google's Gmail or Yahoo's Yahoo! Mail, its ability to work with corporate e-mail systems, as of now, is no better than mediocre.

That's because neither Apple Inc. nor AT&T, the exclusive iPhone carrier in the United States, had, as of Thursday, confirmed whether the iPhone will be using third-party synchronization technology.

These technologies allow users to encrypt their e-mails for secure transmission and update their contacts, calendar and tasks wirelessly rather than the next time when they physically connect with their PC.

The best known include Microsoft's ActiveSync, which connects with Microsoft's popular Exchange e-mail server software; Motorola subsidiary Good Technology Inc.'s Mobile Messaging, which allows devices similar over-the-air connectivity with Lotus Notes/Domino and Exchange servers; or even Research in Motion's BlackBerry Connect, the trademark e-mail 'push' technology that made its BlackBerrys so popular and which the Canadian company is now licensing to other vendors.

From an IT management perspective, these products allow IT administrators to remotely manage these devices.

That can help an IT manager "when he gets a 2 a.m. call from the CEO complaining his e-mail is down," said Keith McCall, CTO at e-mail service provider Azaleos. Or it can let an IT manager wipe all of the data from a smartphone if it is lost.

"For a corporate IT manager, this is not a 'nice-to-have' but a 'must-have,'" said Ravi Agarwal, CEO of Exchange hosting provider GroupSpark. ActiveSync, which is used by more than 200 smartphones from vendors including Motorola, Nokia, Treo maker Palm, Sony Ericsson, Symbian and others, might be the most likely bet.

ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley, citing anonymous sources, reported earlier this week that Apple is on the verge of licensing the ActiveSync technology from Microsoft.

Through a spokeswoman, Microsoft said Wednesday that it declined to "comment on rumors."

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