Enterprise comes to iPhone

if the Apple iPhone won't come to the enterprise, then the enterprise will come to it

If the mountain won't come to Mohammed, then Mohammed will come to the mountain, goes the saying. Now, the high-tech version of that saying might read: If the iPhone won't come to the enterprise, then enterprise will come to the iPhone.

The announcement this week that NetSuite, a Web-based-only service provider for ERP and CRM to the midmarket, runs on the iPhone without any major tweaking almost as well it runs on a desktop has a lot of people rethinking the capability of the iPhone as a business tool.

To make matters even more interesting, NetSuite didn't spend one day in Cupertino to figure out how SuitePhone, as it's now called, would run on Apple's new device, though the two companies worked together in the past to ensure that NetSuite's SaaS (software as a service) solution ran well on Apple's Safari desktop browser.

"For the iPhone, we didn't have to do additional development work," says Malin Huffman, senior product manager at NetSuite. Whatever improvements were made to NetSuite 07 in order to work with the latest version of Safari for the desktop "carries over to Safari on the iPhone."

While most mobile solutions are limited in what they can accomplish -- dialing directly from a contact manager is typical -- Huffman claims NetSuite customers already use the iPhone and the SuitePhone solution in the field to look up customer history, process credit cards, and even do payroll.

So is this a unique circumstance due in large part to the way NetSuite was built originally? After all, it does not use Flash or need Java to run, making porting to the iPhone, which lacks support for both, that much easier.

Huffman says no, the NetSuite build is not that unique for a SaaS application, but it may be too early to tell.

While the iPhone famously does not support Flash or Java, it does support JavaScript and all the Web standards that AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) is built on. Plus, it supports PDFs and Microsoft Word documents.

"The AJAX technology allows [NetSuite] to work faster over the slower network than it would otherwise," notes Huffman.

Also, because AJAX allows users to drag and drop from selected environments without having to refresh the entire contents of a page, the SuitePhone version makes for a more seamless experience. 

Of course, there are a number of limitations, as InfoWorld pointed out in its review by Tom Yager.

Yager notes that the device will not upload or download files. However, in a SaaS solution like NetSuite, this limitation may not be a deal breaker for purchasing the device.

The strong suit of any SaaS solution is in accessing data directly from the server. Focusing on real-time instant access rather than offline access, says Huffman, is what its users care about the most. 

But Yager also says, "Safari does not allow a Web page to sense finger motion using standard events, so drag, slide, and drag/drop operations require special effort."

True, says Huffman.

"You wouldn't want to do a lot of configuration of NetSuite on the iPhone. You would do the configuration on the desktop." 

Safari also lacks the "ability to adjust a Web page's text size," notes Yager.

It is a valid criticism, says Huffman, but it doesn't affect NetSuite because users can pinch or drill down.

So have too many industry reviews underestimated the iPhone's usefulness in the enterprise? While the iPhone is not perfect, there is no denying that NetSuite ports to this handheld device easily. The apparent ease with which it does that comes from a very obvious but often overlooked fact: Apple has duplicated the Safari browser almost exactly as it exists on the desktop.

If you can re-create a browser for a handheld that is almost identical to the desktop version, everything that can be done on the Web on the desktop can, in theory, be carried out on the handheld browser, too.

Where Apple has gone the extra mile is in creating a user interface that makes up for many of the small-screen limitations: for example, the so-called two-finger pinch that allows a user to drill down and expand what they are looking at.

Huffman adds that users also can customize their views to suit the small screen by setting up dashboards in a one-column format or creating forms that are better suited to the iPhone.

There is nothing really new here other than a better-thought-out, user-friendly interface. But Apple took the obvious -- what others have tried -- and put all the pieces together in a single package.

Some believe it is so unique that the device may become, in essence, a wake-up call to the entire high-tech industry, especially handset manufacturer designers and software developers. 

And what that wake-up call from Apple and NetSuite says is that if you build it right, they, the enterprise, will come to the mountain, er, the handset manufacturer.