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CRM on the iPhone takes a step forward with 3G, still lags RIM

Oracle has seen some early interest in iPhone applications, and others have plans for CRM on the iPhone, but deploying it in the enterprise requires some careful thought.

The release of the iPhone 3G in June brought CRM on the iPhone closer to reality for the enterprise, according to industry analysts, but Apple apparently still has a ways to go to unseat Research in Motion (RIM)'s BlackBerry device.

A number of CRM vendors, including, NetSuite and SugarCRM, have developed applications to run on the iPhone's earlier incarnation. Paul Greenberg, president of the 56 Group LLC, a Manassas, Va.-based consultancy, tracked those in an iPhone bake off on his blog last fall.

When it comes to enterprise applications, CRM is among the first that people will want to access on the iPhone, Greenberg said.

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"CRM is a natural for mobile devices," he said. "Nothing is more appropriate."

With the release of the 3G phone, CRM on the iPhone holds greater potential.

Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. changed its position on the iPhone in the enterprise with the 3G's addition of new firmware and security enhancements, recommending "appliance-level" status, meaning that it could be used for personal information management, email, telephony and browsing applications.

The Yankee Group also sees the promise -- and the limits -- of CRM on the iPhone.

"The 3G helps," said Sheryl Kingstone, director of customer-centric strategies for the Boston-based research firm. "Network connectivity improves, so you can have better interfaces. But if you're living in an application, we still recommend a semi-connected, native application."

In addition, the release of the Apple software developer kit (SDK) for the iPhone helps to open up the platform and create the opportunity to add mash-ups, combining information from the Internet with information from a CRM application.

"The browser standards are much better, and couple that with 3G and you can more effectively go out and get information in real time that might not be resident on your phone," Kingstone said.

Buying CRM on the iPhone at the Apple Store

In June, Apple launched the App Store, a place to access software that runs on the new iPhone. Two of the initial enterprise applications to be offered on the App Store were a mobile version of San Francisco-based's CRM and business intelligence (BI) tools from Oracle Corp. called "business indicators." Oracle's applications have proven popular already. According to Oracle, there have been 23,000 downloads of the tools, which are free from the App Store but require an Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition license to truly leverage. Of those downloads, 18,698 came from the United States; 399 from Australia; 1,082 from Great Britain; 1,433 from elsewhere in Europe; and 1,443 from the rest of the world.

Oracle said it plans to build CRM capabilities for the iPhone, as Germany's SAP AG did.

"There's a bunch of other ones in the works," Greenberg said. "A lot of the CRM vendors have announced an iPhone capability because of the enterprise features, but it still has problems. The enterprise features still aren't as strong as the BlackBerry. It's not as fast as Wi-Fi and not so much faster than other devices that it's going to make a big difference."

Also, the iPhone runs into problems with the limited 3G coverage area, Greenberg said.

"When you're dealing with things as complex as BI or CRM and need secure data, all of a sudden you're talking about something that needs a damned big pipe," he said. "Unless they've optimized it extremely well, these things aren't going to be that much of a great advantage over the last batch."

Where organizations typically run into problems with mobile CRM deployments is with the carriers and capabilities, Greenberg said -- not something the application vendors have much control over. Earlier this year, SAP released a mobile version of its CRM application for the BlackBerry that lives natively on the RIM device.

"It's not a coincidence SAP chose the BlackBerry as the first device they were going to build on," he said. "They let RIM build it. I don't think Apple is going to build CRM for the iPhone."

Still, the response to CRM on the iPhone has been positive and greater than Kingstone had expected, which shows promise, she said. Greenberg agrees.

"Do I think the iPhone has reached the level of maturity so that CRM is going to be a really good application for it?" he said. "The answer is, 'not yet.' I think it's possible."

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