Blackberry vs. iPhone – which device will business users back

When Apple’s iPhone stormed on the scene last year, it was heralded by users as the BlackBerry killer.

While some IT departments were willing to find workarounds, most kept the device at arm’s length until lessons learned from past smartphones in the workplace-such as push e-mail and remote data wiping-were released.

Steve Jobs recently released the iPhone Software Development Kit (SDK) and announced Microsoft Exchange support for the iPhone. Business users once again the SDK has been downloaded more than 100,000 times, Apple is giving the nod to only a small sliver of developers hoping to use it to create applications.

With both BlackBerrys and iPhones vying for the top spot (or pocket) of business-class users, the competition is a lot fiercer than it may appear. Indeed, BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIM) has been quietly helping its partners develop better tools, while other companies are (somewhat grudgingly) getting ready for an onslaught of iPhones in the workplace. The race, it seems, is on.

“We understand it’s only a matter of time before we’re being pressured by the top execs to make [the iPhone] work in our environment but if it happens before some of our security, etc., issues are addressed, ‘making it work in our environment’ won’t be easy,” says Rob Paciorek, senior vice president and CIO of Access Intelligence.

BlackBerry and Apple: Fruit Salad?

When consumers decide which of the two handheld devices to purchase, it’s not hard to reason that loyal Mac users would opt for another product in the Apple family. The challenge, then, falls on BlackBerry to keep Apple customers from hopping the fence by making their phones über-compatible with the Mac.

Andrew Bocking, director of handheld software for RIM, says though it’s tempting for Mac users to jump on the iPhone bandwagon because of the perceived ease of working with products that are compatible out of the box, they might want to reconsider. “People need to evaluate what they want from their mobile device. The BlackBerry smartphone offers a leading communication device that is unrivaled in terms of e-mail and messaging, with great voice capabilities as well as an incredible multimedia experience.”

Although RIM declines to comment on the specific number of BlackBerry users who also use Macs, Bocking says “there is a large group of BlackBerry for Mac users and that number continues to grow at a quick pace.”

In order to keep BlackBerry users to keep from succumbing to the iPhone’s temptation, one of RIM’s main priorities is to make sure its BlackBerrys are Mac compatible. That’s a tall order when developing tools to use on a primarily closed-source platform.

Information Appliance Associates (IAA), the company behind PocketMac, has spent four years creating a popular application that lets BlackBerry users sync their devices to Apple computers. VP of Marketing and Sales, Tim Goggin, says the development process hasn’t always been easy. “Our biggest challenge when developing PocketMac,” he says, “was the initial task of making the Mac and the BlackBerry communicate with each other. All of that work had to be created from scratch. It took over a year to develop the first version, and we’ve been perfecting it ever since.”

Both RIM and IAA provide different levels of tech support for PocketMac, and Goggin says RIM’s ongoing involvement in the app has been a boon for both IAA and the end user. “RIM has a very enthusiastic partner since the initial development. Shortly before releasing the product, we became RIM Alliance Partners, and a year and a half after our joining the Alliance Partners program, RIM and Information Appliance Associates started discussing potential licensing of the app.”

Goggin continues, “It’s been over two years now that RIM has licensed and distributed PocketMac for BlackBerry on their site, and I think I can say that it’s worked out very well for everyone, especially BlackBerry Mac users.”

Well aware that the iPhone is gaining traction in the smartphone community, Goggin says IAA is planning ahead. “We will be building in extensive media syncing, including iTunes music and iPhoto photo syncing. Additionally, we’ll have full support for Office:Mac 2008. And for upcoming versions, we’ll be working on adding sync support for even more new applications.”

The Smartphone Stew

Long before the iPhone began its march to take over the communications world, IT departments were already tasked with getting two other types of smartphones to coexist peacefully in the workplace: BlackBerrys and Windows Mobile devices. In fact, for some companies, the introduction of a new player on the smartphone field is old hat.

Access Intelligence’s Paciorek says, “We went through this with Windows Mobile devices until secure push e-mail was made available last year.”

He advises IT departments to get ready for the inevitable call to arms to make iPhones accessible in the workplace. “Make sure you do your research about what it can and can’t do, and ask yourself some important questions. Like: Do the carrier-specific contracts mean anything to you? Will it work with your e-mail platform and security level? Will the lack of a real keypad be difficult for any of your users? Are there features that are available with other devices that aren’t available with the iPhone (syncing Outlook notes, for example)?”

According to Paciorek, the biggest challenge will be from employees bringing their personal iPhones to work. “We worry about bandwidth so we certainly don’t want users recklessly downloading music or videos over our network. That includes downloading to their local machine before syncing to their iPhone as well as downloading directly over our wireless network to their iPhone. We can place controls on both, but it just means another thing we have to monitor.”

The biggest headache for Paciorek, however, isn’t what happens when employees have their phones with them-it’s when they don’t. ‘[We] worry about security,” he says. “Our BlackBerrys are managed directly by our BlackBerry Enterprise Server so if one of those gets lost or stolen, we can remotely wipe the device and not worry about losing company data. With the iPhones, that’s not possible. If a person is using it as a business PDA and has any kind of data-whether personal or business related-we have no control over it if it’s lost.”

Paciorek says the best defense against these sorts of issues with iPhones is, of course, a good offense. “Make it clear to users what they can and can’t do before they even consider the iPhone purchase. This way the users will have the proper expectations before they bring it to the office. At our company, we’ve let everyone know as soon as there is a secure way to push our e-mail to the iPhone and as soon as features like remote wipe are made available, we will support it. Until then, we won’t.”

Fortunately, there’s good news for Paciorek and other CIOs making plans to integrate iPhones into the workplace; these are the very issues that will be addressed in the upcoming release of the iPhone software 2.0, currently in beta.

Access Intelligence’s hard line against the use of iPhones in the workplace isn’t meant as a commentary on the value of the device in general but rather what the company perceives as its potential limitations. Once those issues are addressed, the company plans to support the phones. “[We’re] not trying to single [them] out because we’re anti-Apple…. The iPhone is a great consumer device that may be a great business device someday.”

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