By Jon Fortt
March 7, 2008
With the addition of Microsoft Exchange, the iPhone is open for business. Image: Apple

Steve Jobs sent a clear message to the technology world Thursday: Apple wants it to view the iPhone as an opportunity, not a threat.

To drive that point home, Jobs gave up the stage for most of Apple’s

highly anticipated software event at its Cupertino headquarters. Rather than hog the spotlight with his legendary presentation skills and personality, he let deputies and partners explain how entrepreneurs can start writing their own software for the iPhone, and how businesses can use the device to seamlessly access corporate e-mail.

That warm embrace of business customers was critically important for Apple. Because of a slumping economy and earnings projections that didn’t thrill Wall Street, Apple has soured a bit in the eyes of investors in 2008. The only thing that can reverse that sentiment is the iPhone, an Internet-capable touch-screen device that Jobs has promised will sell 10 million units this year.

For that to happen, Apple probably will have to sell quite a few iPhones to businesses, who have been leery of a product that initially seemed tailored for consumers, not corporate IT managers. Corporate buyers, who were weaned on Research in Motion’s

no-nonsense BlackBerry, have voiced uncertainty about the iPhone’s touch screen, its incompatibility with corporate e-mail, and its tightly controlled software.

Apple is signaling that it’s ready to do what it takes to put big business at ease. Not only is the company working with Microsoft

to bring Exchange contacts, calendar and e-mail to the iPhone, Apple is also reaching out to developers like Epocrates and to make sure the iPhone can run the kind of software that doctors and salespeople need to do their jobs.

And contrary to what some in the industry expected, Apple is not going to force businesses to use its consumer-focused iTunes software to manage the phones. Executives said the company is working on a method that would allow companies to load their own software into the iPhone without going through The App Store, a new clearinghouse that Apple will use to distribute software for the phone.

Another sign of Apple’s determination to be business-friendly: Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller started his presentation by showing a laundry list of new features that big businesses had demanded from the iPhone, and saying that Apple plans to supply them all. Most companies make such pronouncements all the time — but Apple has long prided itself on not doing focus groups and not taking orders from The Man. (The recording industry and movie studios have tried bringing Jobs their own lists of iPod-related demands, and it hasn’t gone so well.)

But this time around, we could be seeing signs of a kinder, gentler Apple. In a telling moment last year, Steve Jobs said one thing he envied about Bill Gates is his ability to work with business partners. “I think if Apple could have had a little more of that in its DNA, it would have served it extremely well,” Jobs said. In the early days, Jobs said, Apple’s go-it-alone mindset was probably a mistake.

Based on the iPhone news, Jobs is determined not to make the same mistake again.

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