iPhones in the enterprise leaving IT at wit's end

Executives smitten with iPhones are forcing enterprise IT departments to come up with ways to support the mobile devices even though big security and management questions abound.

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IT pros peppered panelists at a standing-room only Interop session titled "The iPhone and the Enterprise: Is this the Future of IT?" with such questions and left without many answers.

One healthcare IT pro said supporting iPhones would be a nightmare given industry data protection regulations and the ability of end users to relatively easily "jailbreak" their iPhones. Another IT pro pointed out that supporting a bunch of native apps on iPhones would seem to run counter to other IT trends, such as the move toward desktop virtualization and centralized applications control.

Panelist J.T. Starzecki, president of application development and consulting company iPhone Zen Masters, acknowledged that IT pros are left with the "dilemma of how to fit iPhones into their current infrastructure" in light of executives adopting iPhones for personal use and then calling on IT to support them in the business.

"IPhone 2.0 made some leaps toward enterprise adoption [with support for Exchange ActiveSync, etc, but it's not where it should be," he said.

One big challenge in supporting iPhones is that it's hard to find an organization that wouldn't also have a handful of other mobile device types to support, said Adam Blum, CEO of Rhomobile, which makes a framework for building native mobile device apps that can work across platforms. Supporting multiple platforms would only add to an IT department's workload, he said. "We'll always have heterogeneity," he said.

While IT shops might not be happy about losing control over end devices stuffed with applications, Blum said there's not much they can do about the shift. He noted that some applications, such as GPS and cameras, must be on the end device. He pointed to the emergence of applications on iPhones and other smartphones in the enterprise as part of the seemingly never-ending back and forth nature of centralized and decentralized computing.

While some IT shops might being feeling forced to support iPhones because of top execs' desires, others might be the supporters themselves. In these cases, the panelists recommended selling higher ups on iPhone support by showing first how it could benefit customers. "The wedge is 'We want to support our customers,'" Starzecki said.

The panelists pointed to some high profile iPhone business apps, such as AAA enabling customers to report their location via the iPhone and Nationwide allowing insurance clients with iPhones to send in claims data, including accident photos.

Among inhibitors to iPhones taking off in the enterprise is the lack of a good iTunes-like distribution channel for enterprise apps, Blum said. He said enterprise app developers can't abide by a system that wouldn't allow them to have more control over when their offerings become available. "This is an area that's ripe for innovation," he said.

Irv Shapiro, CEO of hosted voice application and platform company Ifbyphone, said it will be interesting to see what enterprises truly require from Apple in terms of iPhone security, whether it's the ability to just sandbox applications or more. "Apple should be listening more," he said.

Though he also said it's quite possible that Apple's focus is more on non-enterprise businesses since there are so many of them. "It could be that Apple is deciding to become the dominant player in non-enterprise workers first and then slowly evolve into the enterprise as demand moves that way," he said.

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