iPhone for Business (and Pleasure)

I have now used the iPhone 3G for one month.  During these three weeks, I have moved from a trial iPhone 3G with 2.0.2 firmware, experiencing poor battery performance and intermittent hang-ups and crashes, to an iPhone 3G with the latest 2.1 firmware update that I own, and used to replace my previous Blackberry Curve.  With my bias stated up front, I will share my experiences here, as I try to use the device to service all my needs, both business and personal.

Starting Fresh

When I received the trial iPhone 3G, it was already setup with an existing email account.  The iPhone comes with a data whip feature which I employed.  It took close to an hour to wipe the entire phone, and it was a matter of connecting to iTunes on the desktop to reinitialize the iPhone.  This task went very smoothly as long as you have already downloaded and running with the latest version of iTunes.  On a side note, my desktop PC had a finicky USB port, which provides the USB device with intermittent power.  For the iPhone to communicate with the PC properly, the USB port must provide reliable power leads.  I solved the situation with a powered USB hub.

Business Essentials

Once the iPhone is up and running, the first order of business was to have Exchange setup.  The registration of my Exchange corporate account worked flawlessly, and the iPhone obediently received my emails, calendar events, and contact information.  Using the productivity applications is another matter.  First, let me tackle the hotly debated topic of the touch keyboard. It is certainly not an intuitive mechanism, but awkward and difficult to use.  It is however possible, at least for me, to train yourself to type proficiently on the iPhone.  I started with a single finger action, to a dual thumb Blackberry like action in the span of two hours playing with the device.  I find that my typing speed reached about 80% of what I can accomplish on the Blackberry within the first day.  I have since gotten a lot better.  The trick is to ignore your spelling mistakes or typos and let the automated spelling correction to perform the majority of the work.  With practice and a sense of trust on the auto corrector, I can now match my previous typing performance on my old Curve, granted I may be the exception here though.

I composed my first email and checked my Outlook account to see if it was synced up.  I did the same thing for my calendar entries, performing additions and deletions on both the iPhone and the PC to ensure the updates were propagated to the other device, the same for contacts.  Everything worked as advertised as far as syncing goes.  The timeliness of the synchronization was similar to what I got from the Blackberry, a pleasant surprise.

After a few days working with the iPhone, I noticed that the ability to read fully rendered HTML emails is a great thing to have.  The emails come fully formatted with bullets, indentations, and graphics.  I can now respond to these HTML emails immediately on my iPhone, whilst on my Blackberry I have to wait until I view it on my laptop or desktop.  Unfortunately, there are also some drawbacks.  First, you cannot send a high priority email.  Not sure how big of a deal it is, especially when we don’t know how various mailers interpret this flag (or not).  What surprised me is certain expected calendar functionality that I frequently use is missing.  For example, I cannot add or manage my attendees to a calendar entry and send invitations to them.  Another capability that I find lacking is that when I accept or decline a meeting sometimes I like to send my response with a comment.  The iPhone has no such facility.  There is also no way to create a private calendar entry.  Although I can view my Outlook calendar and respond to meeting invitations in near real-time, having the above gaps closed would mean managing ones busy calendar much easier.  For now, I have to mitigate with email in a pinch.

The contact management is usable but can sometimes be slow to respond initially.  I have over 900 contacts, and whenever I go into the contact application, there is sometimes a two to three seconds pause before the iPhone responds to my touch inputs.  On a positive note, searching, editing and dialing contacts are quite intuitive.

The phone functionality is instinctive and its integration with the contact manager is nicely done.  I just wish that the contact manager is more responsive in the beginning.  The call history, recent calls, and favorites all exists on the iPhone.  Speaker phone volume is only usable in a quiet environment, and is barely audible if you are driving in a car.  As a work around, you can hookup the iPhone to an FM transmitter, then the caller’s voice can be broadcasted to your car’s speakers.

My Motorola Bluetooth headset also had no problems connecting with the iPhone, but I did notice that the volume on the headset was slightly lower than when I had the same headset connected to my Blackberry Curve.

One unique experience on the iPhone is the visual voice mail.  Visual voice mail allows you to see your voice mail without having to traditionally dial into your voice mail to see if you have any messages.  Visual voice mail also works through the data network and not through the voice network, so in theory if you are roaming, the data rate coupled with the amount of data used by visual voice mail will most likely end up to be cheaper than voice roaming with long distance charges.  The other advantage that I found is that you can listen to voice mail out of its original sequence.  It comes in handy if you have a significant backlog of messages.

Data Plans and Roaming

I use a Canadian carrier, Rogers.  They have a $30 per month for a 6GB data plan for the iPhone.  I find this to be aplenty.  For day to day business uses and occasional surfing the Internet, on average I tend to be below 100MB per day.  Data usage on the 3G or EDGE network is significantly reduced if you have Wi-Fi setup at home and in the office.  The iPhone is smart enough to switch over an available Wi-Fi network and route all data traffic to the Wi-Fi network, a great savings on your data plan allocations.

All this mobile, broadband data experience is great on this device until you begin to travel, or go outside of the Rogers’ network.  While you are traveling, unfettered roaming 3G usage can be damaging to the wallet.  Apple knows this as well, and has set the iPhone default settings to disable data roaming.  However, no data roaming on business is simply not acceptable.  One way to reduce roaming charges is to leverage Wi-Fi access as much as possible.  As I travel with my iPhone, I try to hook on to airport Wi-Fi (free 15 min access via Boingo at time of writing), and hotel Wi-Fi.  The only time I turn on data roaming is when I am able to available to read email, while I am not in meetings, etc.  If I am traveling extensively throughout the month, then reasonable Boingo plans for unlimited Wi-Fi access are quite competitive if not lower to a similar Blackberry data roaming plan. With these tactics, the iPhone can be made to work cost effectively in a roaming situation, albeit a hassle.  However if money is no object, then roam free and enjoy the same local experience with the iPhone when you are abroad.

Prior to the 2.1 firmware upgrade, the phone depleted its battery before my day ended.  I had to resort to turning off 3G, Bluetooth, wireless LAN access, and dim my display to about 10% brightness.  However with the more recent firmware 2.1, the iPhone can now last for more than a day with average usage on phone and internet browsing and without resorting to turning the majority of the phone network functions off.  On the plus side, charging the iPhone is extremely fast.  Within 2 hours of plugging it to the wall, I can usually get the 80% charge indicator.  It will take another 2 hours to reach fully charge status.

Why Switch?

Even with the above short comings listed above, the user experience of the device is so compelling that I was willing to manage the weaknesses of the iPhone.  Having used it for 3 weeks now, the business features that I use frequently is quite comparable to my Blackberry experience.  In other words, I don’t miss my Blackberry at least not while I am in Canada.  When I am traveling however, I fully admit that the hassle of managing data roaming is a bit of a pain, but one I am willing to manage and is a small price to pay for the added benefits.  So what are these benefits? In addition to the business needs that I wrote above, the other benefits are:

  • surfing the web with full HTML rendering and visual experience; 
  • listening to audio books, podcasts, and music;
  • watching a movie with excellent quality, during a long flight, or more likely waiting in the airport lounge for an undesirable flight delay;
  • Unparalleled PDF and Power Point renderings that are actually readable;
  • extending the device with applications – and yes games as well – from the Apple AppStore;
  • and last but not least, the untapped potential of this powerful piece of hardware with future applications and firmware releases

Granted, it is not the best business device, but for me to-date, it is the closest mobile device that excels in the best combined experience of both business and pleasure.  If I thought I was addicted to the need of being incessantly online, this device gives new meaning to the cliché of “I have the whole world in my hands.”  I am now connected more than ever; surely this is good news in the business pursuit of insatiable growth.