Is the iPhone a Dud for Serious Business Users?

In an editorial today, Engadget’s EIC notes that he can’t effectively work—as in, do things he would normally do to be productive—using the iPhone 3GS. As someone who used to do a lot of work from his Danger Sidekick, a device far less powerful than even the first iPhone, I’ve found myself on the cusp of writing the same editorial many times. Ironically, that urge has always hit me when I’ve been in the middle of having problems using the iPhone to do any work, and since writing an editorial qualifies as work, it’s been just as much of a pain to try and write the editorial on the iPhone as anything else. By the time I’ve returned to my Mac, there have been better things to write about.

Engadget says, pointedly, that “[a]t the end of the day, it’s nice to stick the ‘we love business users’ line into your PR, but it’s quite another thing to make it real.” It’s an interesting point, and one that we’ve been hearing a lot about in anecdotal conversations over the past 6 or 12 months. Everyone heard the stories of how Blackberry Storm users returned the problematic devices within days of purchase, but the story we’ve heard recently is that business professionals—wooed by Apple’s apps-for-everyone pitch—have been returning iPhones, too, blaming the lack of a real keyboard for their inability to actually get anything done on the devices. Then they buy Blackberries. We understand this, and have been struggling ourselves with the same problems for two years now. Our productivity has dropped a lot, and the iPhone’s input scheme is the single biggest reason why.

Some devices were designed as communications tools first, and media players second; that was the story with the Sidekick, which had a relatively awesome little keyboard that could hammer out everything from articles to e-mails with great speed. The iPhone was designed in the opposite direction, as were many of the apps, which started as modestly updated versions of iPod menu items: back when the iPod touch was first released, for instance, Apple was struggling with whether to even let users edit content on the touch as they could on the iPhone. Originally, the concept was “iPods play things, they don’t create things.” Voice Memos changed that a little back in 2003, and the wall came down entirely in early 2008 as the artificial software dividing line between iPhones and iPod touches essentially disappeared.

Yet Apple’s pocket devices have never been as strong as they could be: whether for games or business apps, developers are always forced to shoehorn input functionality into the iPhone OS’s limited controls. Instant messaging apps are cramped by a keyboard and status bar that consume half of the screen. Games are all but forced to make you put fingers on top of their graphics or turn the devices on off-angles for control. The strength of being able to relabel and redefine some buttons on an app-by-app basis is great, but a proper physical keyboard is a necessary second component. Haptic feedback isn’t going to do it. Buttons are what’s necessary for business users. And we’ll gladly pay for them.

Engadget’s other comment is that multitasking is a glaring omission, and yes, there’s no doubt that it is, even in the wake of push notifications going live. But between the current devices’ 480×320 screen real estate, seriously deficient batteries, and other factors, it’s quite possible that the iPhone OS isn’t quite ready yet for true multitasking. For now, a keyboard would go further towards making the device useful, and it’s time to make it happen.

  1. If you are more productive with a different mobile device, then why stick with the iPhone?

    Maybe a combination of another mobile device + an iPod touch would work better for you? Granted, that’s two devices, but you will be cool AND productive ;o)

  2. We have recently converted all our phones in the company including 6 blackberries to iphones and couldn’t be happier. It does our exchange email, allows VPN into our setup so that we can get unfettered access to local machines in the network. In a pinch, our techs do remote desktop and vnc to remote login into servers too to monitor machines.

    We can’t see any use for blackberry any more. Whats more, the local AT&T threw in a lot of discounts as well our way for service and for devices in case of those who switched from other networks.

    We do not miss blackberries or the 8525s that we rplaced AT ALL.

  3. As a personal reaction and anecdote to this “we must have physical keyboards” issue…Let me say that I have used both a Blackberry (first) and an iPhone. I am equally, if not more, productive in typing and using the iPhone’s virtual keyboard than I ever was on the Blackberry (I used a Curve). I am getting rather impatient with this “we must have physical keyboards” — therefore we must go back to Blackberries — mantra. And I know that I am not the only one who has turned in his Blackberry for a much better overall experience with the iPhone.

    I use the iPhone primarily for business purposes. It is hardly ever used as an iPod or general gaming device. It is used for sending/receiving email, for navigating websites, for calendaring and tasks etc.

    Frankly, this is one of those issues where I think there’s a lot of smoke but no fire. I adamantly disagree with your conclusion that a physical keyboard is necessary.

  4. seriously?…all “serious business uses” *need* a physical keyboard?…i can understand if *you* need a physical keyboard as a matter of preference…that makes sense to me because it’s a personal preference…but don’t insult those of us who love the virtual keyboard and loathe the physical keyboard as people who can’t be serious business users…if you can’t get your work done with the iphone, feel free to pick a different device…more power to ya…i, however, am infinitely more productive with the iphone at work, so i’ll happily get back to my serious business work…

  5. It’s fascinating to see how different the reader responses are here on iLounge versus the ones on Engadget. Reading only the comments here, one would think that the virtual keyboard is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Obviously it works well enough for a lot of users’ needs.

    And of course the iPhone is an amazing device, but it’s not perfect, and to suggest that people who are thrilled to upgrade from various outdated phones to shiny new iPhones is missing the point. The question isn’t whether it’s a better package overall, but whether one or two features would really help improve the usability of the device for a large group of people. For a company as capable as Apple, building a version with a real keyboard – or providing the necessary HID for keyboard accessories – would be trivial.

  6. >whether for games or business apps, developers are always forced to shoehorn input functionality into the iPhone OS’s limited controls.
    Surely you understand that every pint-sized device is going to be a collection of compromises. Would the iPhone be as successful had it chosen the route of the Treo, halving the screen space? Would we have fallen in love with a fatter more mechanically complex iPhone with a slide out, swivel out, or snap down keyboard?

    So the iPhone isn’t for everyone. Who the hell said it should be? That’s the great thing about capitalism – we can choose the phone that works best for us. Now go away and let me get back to play…er work.

  7. I am using my 3G iPhone for business purposes very much and I do not mind the lack of a physical keyboard. To the contrary. Especially now that OS 3.0 supports Greek natively, I only use my laptop or iMac only when I need to do things that can’t be done on the iPhone, e.g. download photos from my camera.

    So, I guess it is you and the nature of your work and -much more important than implied- the way you are used to do that work that make you find the iPhone is not up to the task. I on the other hand find that anything other than a full-fledged keyboard is a compromise, so if I am going to get used to one, I prefer the iPhone’s. But this is me and I don’t generalize. I am not saying that I don’t get your point or that your point isn’t valid. You should consider though the fact that you were already accustomed to a physical keyboard. Would things be different were you not?

  8. If you’re going to do a lot of typing, why not take a laptop?

    With the small screen (but among the biggest on phones), you’re not going to be able to view much text at oncel

  9. I have used the full gambit of “smart phones” on the market. From sidekicks all the way through to windows mobile devices, blackberries, etc. It wasn’t until I purchase the first iPhone that I really felt like I had a device that allowed me to write emails, notes, ideas, etc. I find the virtual keyboard along with the word recognition software to be far superior to any “thumb pad” masquerading as a keyboard. To say that “all serious business users” must have a physical keyboard is well short sited. Physical keyboards in mobile phones are like a mutation that didn’t hold up to natural selection – perhaps what you need to consider is how to better adapt to emerging technologies! This is a device you can put in your pocket, it is going to have limitations much in the same way that most laptops have limitations.

  10. You meant to say “in your opinion” during your article. Coming from a Blackberry Bold, I much prefer the iPhone keyboard. Can you please post the specifics of your claim business users are returning their iPhones.

    My company just completed a 2 month iPhone pilot of 100 users. Exactly 1 user asked to go back to their blackberry at the end.

  11. It is very interesting to see all the responses, and this article, as it clearly shows that there are some users who like the on-screen keyboard, and some who don’t.

    I am in the middle, as I find I am able to type relatively quickly on my iPod touch, but the sensation of my fingers hitting the screen repetitively gives me a rather uncomfortable feeling as I am used to buttons on my Nokia cellphone (I hate my phone, the OS is horrible and in my opinion doesn’t qualify as a proper phone OS).

    The perfect solution, for me, would be an on-screen keyboard that had some kind of response when you pressed a key (there is some smartphone that does that, the BB Storm or the G1, I can’t remember).

  12. At my company, if you need a business phone, you get a blackberry paid for, but if you want to use your own phone you get a small reimbursement toward your bill. That said, from the CEO down we have been helping people who could have a free blackberry setup their iphone to work on the corporate network and no one has switched back including me and the other IT guys.

  13. I used BB devices for years, bought iPhone gen 1, and u could not pay me to switch back. Featherlite typing is super, no pressing, etc…Orientation switching, etc…also we switched the whole company over, 30 staff, and no longer pay the blackberry tax for exchange. No brainer…

    I can say that if you only had iPhone a couple days, it’s not long enough to get adjusted. Just like your first BB. But as I type this on mine, let me remind I’m holdit with one hand, typing looking up on the couch, which would be impossible on BB.

  14. Having used smartphones with hardware keyboards (blackberry curve and sony ericsson m600), I fail to see the “superiority” of physical keyboards. Personally I find those little keys difficult to press (and I have small fingers!)

    While I agree with Jeremy’s point that overlaying input control on the screen is not ideal for certain games, I fail to see how the reduced screen real estate caused by the software keyboard is a problem. The iPhone screen size vertically is almost doubled the Blackberry’s, so when the iPhone’s keyboard pops up, the screen is roughly the same size as a Blackberry.

    As a multilingual user, I often have to email in a few different languages (Japanese, Chinese, French, Swedish) and I find that the iPhone’s input scheme meets my needs perfectly.

  15. I definitely have to disagree with the EICs here and at Engadget. My iPhone has been very capable since day one for me, so much so that I almost forgot about my MacBook altogether. The keyboard was easy to type on from the beginning, as long as you do not use foreign words, which get autocorrected. I do not need or want a physical keyboard, trackball, spaceship control panel, or anything else business users miss from their blackberries. The iPhone touchscreen is very accurate from my experience, so the shortfall must be somewhere else. The only good way to settle this is to release bluetooth keyboards (or wired through the dock connector) so that a niche of customers can carry them around.

  16. I don’t want or need a physical keyboard especially with the new wider keyboard on OS 3.0. I have had many, many Blackberries at various jobs including way before they had phone capability and they are seriously deficient in handling e-mail over an iPhone. Not to mention the OS is ancient, the trackball is a very poor means of control, and the screen size is too small. I certainly this desire for a physical keyboard is personal and cannot be stated as something every one requires. the only point I agree with is longer battery life. This is especially true if you travel a lot for work. You have to constantly think about when you are going to be able to charge your phone next. Yes you can get a battery extender but it really needs to be something built in to the phone.

  17. I’m very happy to finally read an article by someone who used a Sidekick seriously. Prior to the iPhone it had by far the best UI of any smartphone, but (mostly due to its silly “urban” targeting) it got almost completely ignored, despite being incredibly fast and efficient to use (even running interpreted code on a <50 MHz processor).

    Unfortunately the only other current device with a keyboard like the Sidekick's is the HTC Dream/T-Mobile G1. I've reluctantly switched to it from my old Sidekick, but it's so slow as to be nearly unusable and makes text editing much more difficult because it lacks both a directional pad and iPhone style magnification (the trackball is not a replacement). In addition, it has many of the screen limitations imposed by a touch screen which is smaller than the iPhone's - gigantic buttons and text fields in landscape mode do not give you much room to type. And there's no point in having multitasking if it takes as long to switch applications on the G1 as it does to launch an application on the iPhone...

    I'd be perfectly happy to switch were a Sidekick style keyboard, including directional pad, available as a Bluetooth accessory for the iPhone, and improved *background* notifications become available. Hopefully in a year or two, we'll be back where the Sidekick was in 2002.

  18. what about a compromise? what about a third party bluetooth keyboard that the iphone cradles in or attaches directly to the device?

    why is this a black and white discussion? though a touch screen device, it should SUPPORT a third party or apple brand physical keyboard.

    there’s obviously a strong market. why is the touch interface a sacred cow?

  19. Switched from a Backberry 8820 to an iphone 3g and will NEVER go back. I don’t understand the folks that feel a physical keyboard is superior.. I find the iphones ability to have a contextual soft keyboard a significant advantage. Not only is the iphone faster more reliable and crashes far less than my BB did, it is SO much more useful The only advantage my BB had over the iphone was battery lift, that’s it. I recently dropped my iphone into a pool of water recently and IT SURVIVED.. My BB never would have made it.. Get over the keyboard folks. I can remember the same sort of whining from some people when the mouse first came out… “what you can’t type, why would you ever need a mouse” they would say…

  20. This argument always boggles my mind. People complain I can’t type out a novel on my iPhone. Well I don’t even know why anyone would want to type out an email longer than a paragraph on their Black Berry, iPhone, Sidekick, Pre, etc. The keyboard is just too small for typing that has to be precise, fast, and make sense. Those keyboards are just too small for that stuff and I don’t know why people insist on using a device with a 2-4″ screen to do any “heavy work”.

    If I have to type out a long email or find something is it so hard to first respond with; “I’m out of the office right now. I will be sure to get back to you as soon as I get back and can contact you with a proper email.” I don’t see the harm in that or think anyone would care.

    All of these devices are communications tools. I don’t know if RIM, Apple, or anyone else envisioned that someone would want to type out a novel on a keyboard with keys smaller than a pencil eraser. Do work at work on your computer.

  21. @NEAL
    I agree with your comment. Why haven’t there been any successful 3rd party keyboards coming into the market for the people that want a keyboard? it boggles the mind. Surely it can’t be that hard. I was thinking of a smart business like case similar to the Switcheasy CapsuleNeo in looks, but with a aluminium slide out landscape keyboard underneath. Maybe aluminium or something stronger/lighter. Sure it will be expensive but if it is aimed at the business market and it does the job well it will find a profitable niche.

  22. As Jeremy pointed out earlier, it’s very interesting the difference in opinion between many iphone users and those who aren’t. As someone who was debating getting an iphone, and who later purchased both an ipod touch and then a G1 phone (I was already a tmobile subscriber, which made the decision easier), I’ve run through the gamut on what to think about the issue.

    When I first got the ipod touch, I thought the touch keyboard was the greatest thing to happen since…well, the ipod touch, I guess. I loved how responsive it was, and the touch/iphone software does a great job with predictive text. However, after a month or two of using the thing CONSTANTLY, I became frustrated at the way the keyboard functions. The “buttons” seemed too cramped, and the lack of any sense of mass made it very hard to tell which button you were pressing, making accuracy not quite what it should be.

    It was then that I decided to purchase the G1. I had heard rumors of a newer Google phone in the works, but was fairly certain it wouldn’t have a physical keyboard, which I thought I needed. Boy was I right. In many ways, I find the ipod touch faster than the G1; it’s more responsive, and certain apps are faster on it. That being said, anytime I need to do any sort of typing, I use the G1. Why? Because while I can’t type quite as quickly with it (although it’s pretty close), my accuracy is MUCH improved, which makes for much quicker writing in the end, and much less frustration. Do I understand people who prefer the iphone/touch keyboard? Yes. It simply doesn’t get the job done for me though.

    Essentially what it comes down to is this: The iphone is an amazingly designed ipod that happens to have all the functions of a smart phone. However, with the cutting-edge design Apple gave it, there were bound to be some tradeoffs, and there are. For those who are either used to them, or don’t encounter them, more power to them. For the rest, as has been proposed before, perhaps an ipod touch plus a different smartphone (with a physical keyboard) would be a better route to go.

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