With AT&T's announcement last week that it would begin offering iPhone data plans, many CIOs and IT executives may be curious to see how the popular consumer devices can boost productivity within the workplace. But before making any investments, CIOs should have a clear understanding of just what the iPhone can and can't provide for enterprise users.

Let's start with the obvious: the iPhone is not a substitute for a BlackBerry and isn't meant to be. AT&T says that its enterprise iPhone plan isn't designed to provide competition for Research in Motion's BlackBerry, but is rather intended to give enterprises another option for mobile voice and data services. Additionally, AT&T says it isn't adding any specific features to iPhones offered through its enterprise plan that would make them significantly different from their consumer-plan counterparts. Thus, any iPhones purchased by enterprises will not support corporate email, nor will they have the extensive firewall security infrastructure of BlackBerries.

"We're just serving the needs of those who have iPhones and want to be able to use them in their businesses," says a company spokesman. "We aren't offering a corporate email package, so there's no comparison to the other services at this point."

That's not to say, however, that the iPhone won't offer anything unique to enterprise customers. Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle, says that the iPhone has a "Swiss Army knife" quality to it that can reduce the total number of devices used by employees and thus increase productivity in the workplace. And Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney notes that the iPhone has set the standard for mobile internet browsing, which he says is the main reason it has become so popular with consumers.

"The browsing experience is much better than with the BlackBerry, and it's damn easy to use," he says. "It's on a totally different plane for ease of use, but there's not a lot of depth to it. That's its biggest problem."

iPhone security

So what would Dulaney like to see added before he could recommend it as an enterprise device? The big piece that's missing is security infrastructure, he says. Although the iPhone provides VPN access, he says that Apple and AT&T's security protocols simply "aren't up to snuff" for today's enterprises. If Apple and AT&T want their popular device to be widely adopted by businesses, he says, they'll either have to develop their own native security protocols or open up the iPhone platform to let outside security developers do the work for them.

The latter scenario could happen in the near future, as Apple will release an iPhone software development kit (SDK) within the next couple of months that will give software companies a chance to develop their own applications for the device.

Storms thinks the SDK is likely to entice other companies to create applications for what is already a very popular consumer device. As he sees it, the major challenge for making the iPhone enterprise-worthy lies in securing intellectual property through encrypting data.

"The risk of intellectual property loss could come in the form of some notes about a sales deal, it could be some PDFs, or it could be some product requirements," says Storms, who compares the challenges facing iPhone security to the challenges companies faced with securing corporate laptops. "There have been plenty of examples in the past where a company's intellectual property has been compromised because employees have lost laptops where the data hasn't been encrypted."

Additionally, Storms and Dulaney say, any iPhone that gets hooked up to a corporate network will need to have a kill switch that is capable of wiping data off of lost or missing devices. Dulaney also suggests that Apple add a protocol to the iPhone that would force enterprise users to change their device passwords to complex ones to lessen the likelihood that hackers could gain access to the phones.

Another way for the iPhone to become more enterprise-friendly would be to open up the device to more Microsoft products, Dulaney says. Noting that Apple has no problem letting its computers run Microsoft programs such as Office and Internet Explorer, Dulaney says Apple should open up the iPhone to Microsoft Exchange, which he says would draw in more companies that want secure corporate email on their employees' mobile devices.

While Apple hasn't hinted at whether it will support programs such as Exchange on the iPhone, the device could get more secure email capabilities later this year, when IBM is expected to release of its Lotus Notes email platform for Apple mobile devices.

In the end, Dulaney says he's not sure whether Apple really wants to spend the time and money needed to transform its iPhone into a staple business device akin to the BlackBerry.

"The enterprise market is interesting to them, but not that interesting," he says. "We thought last year that they'd make up for some of the iPhone's enterprise deficiencies by now, but they haven't."

Storms expresses a similar sentiment and notes that Apple has yet to really engage enterprise users to ask them what they need to do to get the iPhone more widely adopted in the enterprise market.

"They haven't come out and spoken to enterprises and asked them what needs to be done in order to make the iPhone fit into the corporate environment," he says. "We're waiting to see progress and more communication from them."