Apple’s iPhone and Microsoft Exchange

Several of our employees and I own iPhones. Being techie, we are often drawn to new and exciting gadgets. There is certainly no comparison in new gizmos out there that are as intriguing as the iPhone. I was an early adopter and stood in line the day it came out to be one of the first to own one. As a Windows Administrator I’m not even a large fan of Apple, so the draw was all in its technology.

The original firmware for the iPhone was disappointing in the way of business use. The email application offered no form of push technology and Microsoft Exchange had to be configured using pull IMAP. There was also no way to sync contacts or calendar events with exchange over the air. I wrote a personal blog at the time addressing the need for more business friendly applications and that until it could be integrated with common business infrastructures, the iPhone should only be considered for personal use.

In June of 2008, Apple released the iPhone 3G, the successor to what I call the iPhone Classic. With the release of the new hardware, Apple also released the much coveted 1.2.0 firmware more commonly known as 2.0. The 2.0 firmware is available for the iPhone Classic and the iPhone 3G. This firmware includes greater functionality, but more importantly to me as an IT professional, it includes the ability to use Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync for over-the-air push email, push contacts, and push calendar from an Exchange server.

I was also an early adopter of the new iPhone 3G and upon getting it home my first plan of action was to get it working with our Microsoft Exchange infrastructure. I wasn’t able to get it working right away. It turns out there are some tweaks that had to be made to our Exchange IIS configuration in the way of NTLM authentication. After making the correct changes to IIS and correctly entering my near 20 character password correctly on the iPhone keypad, I was up and running.

Setting up the iPhone for Exchange ActiveSync is fairly straight forward. On the iPhone Home screen, go to settings and then choose “Mail, Contacts, Calendars”. Now choose the “Add Account…” option. This will bring up a screen to enter your account information. The password can be the tricky part especially if you use a secure password with all kinds of character types. After the account information is entered, hit the next button and wait for the confirmation. Our mobile device policy requires a pin be set and entered when ever unlocking or waking up the device. Automatically after the account is verified, a screen prompts for the input of a new pin. After entering the pin and verifying the pin it may take up to five minutes for all the contacts, calendar events, and emails to sync. On a 3G connection it took less than 3 minutes to sync 100 email messages, 2 months of calendar events and all of my 100 plus contacts.

The push technology works perfectly. When I’m sitting at my desk I often receive the notification of a new email on my phone before my Outlook has a chance to report it. If I make a change to emails, contacts, or calendars on either my desktop or my iPhone the change is near instantly available on the other. Remote wipes via Exchange MobileAdmin works perfectly too. Within seconds of pressing the wipe link in MobileAdmin the iPhone shuts down and wipes its data. This is handy should the phone ever be lost or stolen.

There are, however, some short comings. The first of which is that the push email only pushes the inbox where as Blackberries can receive push email to any folder. This is ok for some people, but I use a lot of rules to filter emails to separate folders especially for system alerts. I can still check them manually, but it would be nice to not need to flood my inbox with priority 1 alert emails. In addition, there is no access to Public Folders. This isn’t too vital to me at this point; however, our spam processing does use a public drop folder to process spam. Without access to the public folders, I’m unable to move a spam email to the processing folder from my iPhone.

Another shortcoming is in the calendars application. I can create events, but I can’t schedule meetings and assign attendees like I can from my desktop. That would be a handy feature to have when I’m out of the office and receive a client request for a conference call. I could setup the appointment then and there and not have to set a reminder to set it up when I’m at my desktop. In addition, there is no separating your personal entries from your exchange entries. It can be a little uneasy to enter private non-work related calendar events knowing they will be on your work calendar as well. The same annoyance exists for the contacts as there is no way to set personal contacts without them being added to your exchange contacts.

A final shortcoming is in missing some other exchange features. Tasks and Notes could easily be integrated into the iPhone. I’m a huge fan of using the tasks and assigning them to others. I use the exchange notes to keep important tidbits of information readily available. The iPhone doesn’t have a native tasks or to-do list though several third party apps are available. None of the third party applications make use of push tasks from Exchange. The iPhone does have a native Notes application, but there is no integration with Exchange.

In lieu of the shortcomings, the iPhone does work well for business email now. The greatest simple feature Apple added was the ability to delete multiple emails at once instead of having to delete one at a time. The email is always timely, even when I’m on EDGE or standard cell connection. With a little more tweaking, the iPhone may become good competition with Blackberry as an enterprise mobile communications solution. For now, it is good enough to get the job done.

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