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Analysis: will the iPhone ring up success for CRM?

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18th Jul 2007
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The Apple iPhone is set to become the must-have accessory on both sides of the pond, but could it also be the must-have platform for CRM vendors?

By Stuart Lauchlan, news and analysis editor

With the iPhone flying off the shelves in the US, it was inevitably only a matter of time before CRM vendors started talking about providing business applications for what has been seen to date as an almost universally consumer product. While Blackberry devices and the like have gained business critical status, the iPhone has been seen as a logical extension of the consumer iPod ecosystem.

But Apple has been touting around for business applications credibility for the new phone. "Developers and users alike are going to be very surprised and pleased at how great [business] applications look and work on [the] iPhone," said Apple chief executive Steve Jobs. "Our innovative approach, using Web 2.0-based standards, lets developers create amazing new applications while keeping the iPhone secure and reliable."

One of the first out the gate was NetSuite, which announced SuitePhone, a capability that it says allows NetSuite customers to run business operations using the Apple iPhone. This new SuitePhone capability provides native support for Safari, the iPhone and Mac browser - allowing NetSuite’s AJAX-based user interface technologies such as drop-down menus, drag-and drop portlets and in-line editing, to be supported.

"Developers and users alike are going to be very surprised and pleased at how great business applications look and work on the iPhone." Steve Jobs, chief executive, Apple

“Apple has traditionally lacked the software applications required to address the needs of running a sophisticated business. Our new SuitePhone capability addresses this need, and makes the iPhone, in combination with NetSuite, one of the more useful and effective tools currently available to manage small and medium-size businesses,” said Zach Nelson, CEO of NetSuite.

Essentially when users log into their NetSuite accounts on iPhones, they should be able to manage their businesses while they are away from their offices. So back-office users could use their iPhone to remotely access their financial functionality such as invoicing, accounts receivable and payroll while CRM users could enter leads, file expense reports, view contacts and place quotes and orders.

A pleasure to work with

Arch-rival Salesforce.com has made no announcements relating to the iPhone, but Nelson is convinced it's a winner. "Sometimes a vendor can't anticipate what a customer will do," he said. "Our customers absolutely LOVE NetSuite on iPhone. Why would Salesforce.com see different demand than NetSuite? Two reasons. They don't support iPhone, so by definition they won't see demand for it. We didn't see demand for it until we supported it either, but now we see lots of demand.

"Their users do fairly simple SFA stuff on their mobile applications (hence, a scaled down version on a Blackberry is fine), while our customers are running their business on NetSuite and hence need much more functionality - orders, invoices, everything - when mobile.

"With Blackberry and other devices that require plug-ins to run Salesforce.com or NetSuite, the functionality you access is limited. And maybe that's OK for a sales user that spends their day doing contact management. However, as NetSuite is really used to run the entire business - versus Salesforce.com which is just used in the sales department - having access to the full NetSuite application on a mobile device is important.

"I think it's because NetSuite behaves on iPhone exactly as it does on a desktop PC or Mac, that our customers (especially CEOs) find it useful. All the ERP/CRM/e-commerce functionality with all the usability is available without compromise."

"I think it's because NetSuite behaves on iPhone exactly as it does on a desktop PC or Mac, that our customers (especially CEOs) find it useful." Zach Nelson, CEO of NetSuite

Some early adopters seem impressed. “With my new iPhone I have so much of the functionality of NetSuite right in my pocket - with no additional cost, other than internet access time, and without having to install any additional layers,” said Brian Keare, COO of Circle of Friends. “I am particularly impressed with the ability to dynamically resize web pages and use dropdowns. I have already used it successfully to enter and approve sales orders, make deposits, and check inventory. Especially while traveling or on vacation, the iPhone and SuitePhone allow me to keep in touch with my business through NetSuite at no additional charge.”

Mort O’Sullivan, president of ArcaTech Systems, said it was a marked improvement on other mobile devices and solutions. “I have tried other mobile solutions in the past and been frustrated,” he said. “The iPhone is the first device that has a user interface that makes it a pleasure to work with web pages as sophisticated as NetSuite’s. With the iPhone, I have access to all my critical business information in my NetSuite account just as if I were at my computer.”

NetSuite is not the only vendor to have iPhone users in its sights. Zimbra, makers of a messaging and collaboration suite, previously announced iZimbra, a version of its client which can run on Apple's mobile handset.

In the CRM space, Etelos has also made an iPhone gambit. "Etelos CRM works great on the iPhone" said Etelos CEO Danny Kolke. "It allows you to get access to your tasks, projects, appointments or any of your other business processes while you're away from the office. It's almost as good as carrying a laptop."

The company says that Etelos CRM for iPhone has been designed to offer businesses flexibility and functionality on their iPhone's Safari Web Browser with features such as project management, call logging, appointment management, in-depth reporting and more with easily customizable AJAX-enabled functionality.

Punching a hole

So is it a gambit that will deliver? AMR Research’s Bruce Richardson is betting that the iPhone will drive demand for mobile business applications. “In every presentation I’ve given this year, I’ve stressed that application vendors need to start moving their software to mobile devices,” he said. “I usually get a blank stare from the audience; they can’t imagine looking at ERP data on their BlackBerry or RAZR. Indeed, when I sent one of my colleagues an e-mail about NetSuite’s new SuitePhone, I got a sarcastic message back saying, ‘I’m sure that will make a difference for enterprise app buyers.’.”

"In every presentation I’ve given this year, I’ve stressed that application vendors need to start moving their software to mobile devices." Bruce Richardson, AMR Research

But he noted: “An estimated 500,000 iPhones were sold in the first few days of its launch. In an early June report, one Merrill Lynch analyst estimated that Apple will sell four million this year and 12 million in 2008. Sure, the data network is said to be slow and the phone has some other limitations; nonetheless, it does have a great display.”

But he does acknowledge limitations. “While it would be nice to only have to carry a 4.8 oz. handheld that doesn’t have to come out of your bag at an airport, these devices won’t replace laptops or desktops,” he admitted. “As my sceptical colleague rightly points out in a follow up e-mail, ‘The biggest problem is that there is no practical way to interact with the system. The only way to input data is through the touch screen, two-finger keyboard that pops up right over the screen you are looking at.’

"At the same time, think ahead. The iPhone is the newest entry in the next wave of mobile devices. One can’t even imagine what we will have in our pocket or what device we will be wearing over the next three to five years.”

Over at Gartner there is even more scepticism. Analysts there are advising their clients that business users should ban use of the iPhone due to its lack of support from major mobile device management suites, claiming that the iPhone could "punch a hole" through corporate security systems if staff are allowed to use the phone for work purposes.

In a note to clients, the research firm warns: "Most handheld devices come with easy-to-use tools that enable rapid interfaces to business systems. When end users install such tools, they effectively 'punch a hole' through the enterprise security perimeter — data can be moved across applications to personally owned devices, without the IT organisation's knowledge or control."

But with millions of iPhones set to be in circulation within months and the European launch still to come, more and more IT managers and CIOs will be receiving pleas from the workforce to let them use the new 'must be seen with' device. Assuming many let them have their way, the iPhone could become rich pickings for canny mobile apps vendors.

Find out more about Stuart Lauchlan

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