How much work can you do on an iPhone?

The laptop-free promise of today’s next-gen mobile devices is put to the test. Can the iPhone 3G deliver?

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I surveyed several sales- and marketing-oriented apps such as Salesforce.com. Salesforce uses the iPhone’s interface quite well, making the entry and management of contacts, opportunities, and so forth easy to do. And performance over the 3G network was fine. You could handle a lot of customer interaction over the iPhone, instead of dragging your laptop or netbook with you.

The App Store is easy to navigate, both on the iPhone and on a computer via iTunes, though there aren’t subcategories to help narrow down your choices within the store’s broad categories. I had to use search a lot instead. Installing apps is trivial; they install automatically once you’ve entered your account password on the iPhone or the next time you sync if you buy them via iTunes.

iPhone apps are addictive, even if many are faddish. Although I can’t do my job using iPhone apps, I can rely on many to make parts of my on-the-go life and work easier.

Web and location services: Easy as pie
Accessing the Web on the iPhone is a positive experience. The Safari browser handles most modern Web pages, and the ability to zoom and scroll via gestures makes navigation simple. Forms, menu options, graphics, DIVs, and MP3 files all work. But Flash files don’t work, which limits the value of multimedia-oriented sites. Sites that require ActiveX or client-side Java also can’t run their applets on an iPhone either.

The iPhone detects HTML forms and uses its own UI to handle pop-up menus and the like, so your options are readable and consistent. If the site employs JavaScript for such functions, the iPhone uses standard JavaScript formatting, which often requires you to zoom in to read and select options. PHP-based functionality also works just fine.

[ InfoWorld’s Peter Wayner explains how to create Web apps for iPhones and other modern mobile devices. | See his advice for creating native iPhone apps, too. ]

An increasing number of sites have iPhone-optimized versions -- Amazon.com, Cnet, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, USA Today, American Airlines, and JetBlue Airways are all good examples -- that eliminate the need to scroll and zoom. It’s almost as if a parallel Web is emerging. I ended up using these sites most often, because they usually are easier to access. It’s funny how the iPhone’s ability to work with regular desktop pages at first seemed so cool, but the lasting value for me came from the optimized mobile sites.

It took me very little time to reach for my iPhone whenever I wanted to go to a Web site. Whether or not it was iPhone-optimized, I could almost always work with it. The iPhone makes a great Web access tool, especially for “hit and run” visits.

The iPhone comes with Google Maps installed, which does a good job of using the device’s GPS and related geolocation capabilities to give you directions and show you where you are. The iPhone’s zoom and scrolling gestures make navigating maps easy; they usually updated in real time as I moved my finger across the screen. If there was a redraw lag, the iPhone at least remembered where my finger moved, so I didn’t feel lost when the screen finally redrew. My only beef with Google Maps is that when it moves from one turn to another, its zooming out and then back in can be disconcerting and make you lose the overall picture of where you are.

A standard “find me” button in most location-enabled apps made it easy to get going, whether looking for a nearby restaurant or “bookmarking” the location of my car so that I could get directions back to it later. Even the local Bay Area Rapid Transit system’s iPhone app used this feature to tell me where the nearest BART station was, though it didn’t draw a map of how to get to it.

I was impressed that the iPhone could find my location even when I was in a building or some other point obstructing the line of sight between the device and the GPS satellites. It uses both Wi-Fi and cellular triangulation to find your location, so it’s rare that you can’t find out where you are.

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