Apple may announce full Exchange support for the iPhone at an event scheduled for Thursday, an analyst said last week.

"If Apple were to announce Exchange support on the iPhone next week it will be important news for the platform," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with JupiterResearch. "This would be a nice win for Apple and will likely lead to a greater adoption of the iPhone in corporate settings."

Although Gartenberg had no inside information on what Apple meant last week went it said there would be "some exciting new enterprise features" included in the 6 March iPhone event , he theorised it might be related to Exchange, the market-leading mail server sold by Apple's rival, Microsoft.

"If [as] part of the enterprise announcements, Apple announces it has licensed the ActiveSync/Exchange protocol from Microsoft, presumably this would mean that the iPhone would at some point sync directly with Exchange," said Gartenberg in a post to his blog last Thursday. "Bottom line if this happens? Big win for Apple."

At the moment, iPhone users can only pull mail from Exchange servers using the IMAP protocol, and sync contacts and calendar with Outlook at the desktop via USB and iTunes. More importantly, corporate IT administrators cannot centrally manage iPhones, as they can, for instance, Blackberry and Windows Mobile devices.

Gartenberg noted that in his post. "Going through a tethered connection for calendar and contacts and using IMAP for email on the iPhone is a step backward for anyone using a BlackBerry (with a BlackBerry Exchange server) or a Windows Mobile device."

Talk of Apple licensing the ActiveSync protocol from Microsoft goes back to before the iPhone's launch in June 2007, although some analysts dismissed the iPhone as a business tool even then. Gartner, in fact, had advised enterprises to keep the iPhone out of their organisations, citing, among other things, lax security.

Gartenberg, however, thought that the climate may have changed. "There have been persistent calls for Apple to support Exchange directly on the iPhone and this might be the time for them to do it," he said.

The current corporate smart phone of choice is Research In Motion's (RIM) BlackBerry. According to survey data released by ChangeWave last week, the BlackBerry holds a 73 per cent share of the corporate smart phone market; the iPhone, meanwhile, has only 5 per cent of the business.

However, said ChangeWave, iPhones owners led all others in what they thought of their smart phones: "Nearly three-in-five (59 per cent) of Apple's business customers say their company is Very Satisfied with the iPhone," said ChangeWave in a summary of the survey results . Fewer say the same about RIM's smart phone: only 47 per cent said they were very satisfied with the BlackBerry.

An Exchange move by Apple could alter the smart phone landscape, Gartenberg said. "This was an issue they've been dinged on since the initial announcement of the iPhone and it changes the game for them in terms of potential corporate adoption."