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Apple's iPhone is fast building a reputation as a viable business device to rival the BlackBerry. ABTN asks whether it has a place in the corporate travel industry
The iPhone's sales success is due in no small part to its slick, modern design and user-friendly applications, or apps as they are called. But Apple's best selling device has, until now, been largely ignored as a business tool. This is especially true when compared to the BlackBerry, a stalwart of business communication.
There are a number of reasons for the BlackBerry's dominance when you compare the two devices. For one, the absence of a physical keyboard puts the iPhone's touch screen at a disadvantage to most BlackBerry models when composing emails. BlackBerrys are also far more easily integrated into a corporate IT infrastructure, incorporating secure network logon and industry-standard protocols. Most importantly, the iPhone is a young upstart when compared to the well established range of BlackBerrys.
The iPhone's strength may lie simply and perhaps superficially in its ‘cool' factor. But does a symbol of the iPod generation have a place in the corporate travel industry as a ‘cool tool' in the travel supply chain.
Travel IT specialists KDS recently conducted a survey into the use of mobile devices. It found that a surprising number of users wanted access to travel and expense (T&E) spend solutions "on the go". KDS's ceo Yves Weisselberger spoke of a "turning point" in the use of "iconic products like the iPhone".
Mr Weisselberger argued that mobile devices had a particular relevance when used as tools for reporting T&E.
"Travel booking is something that happens before you travel. Expense reporting is something that happens after you travel. Between these two steps, you are not in your office which means you may not be connected through a laptop, you are mobile," he said.
But Mr Weisselberger spoke of new KDS products due out this year aimed at all smartphones, not just iPhones or BlackBerrys.
KDS has joined the growing number of travel technology and IT providers that are developing mobile solutions. Travel technology provider Amadeus recently announced its participation in the BlackBerry Independent Software Vendor Alliance (ISV) programme as it begins to focus on developing mobile solutions.
Francois Laburthe, Amadeus' operational research and innovation director, said: "Mobile technology is absolutely key to corporate travel.
"Almost all business travellers are equipped with smartphones, like the iPhone and BlackBerry, and what's more it's their own device. We can target users directly and securely.
"Travellers are increasingly demanding personalised real-time information for managing their travel arrangements while on the move."
Amadeus previewed a number of prototype mobile applications at this year's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The prototypes were well received according to Mr Laburthe. But Amadeus did so in collaboration with BlackBerry, exhibiting the products on the BlackBerry stand.
While Amadeus mobile solutions, currently being piloted in Finland, will work across the majority of smartphones, the iPhone, Mr Laburthe said, was different.
"We see the iPhone as mainly a leisure device. For the time being we see problems with the iPhone on how it works with IT solutions such as push email applications, login and security," Mr Laburthe said.
"The iPhone business model is not the same as the BlackBerry, which has a larger market share because of its software platform."
But what sets the iPhone apart, Mr Weisselberger pointed out, is its large screen and full-function internet browser which works in the same way as on your desktop or laptop PC. This provides iPhone users with access to many existing browser-based travel solutions - most importantly online booking tools (OBTs). Mr Weisselberger said KDS's own online expense reporting would work on the iPhone, and Amadeus too has browser-based solutions.
From a business consumer point of view, the iPhones' usefulness is growing. Budget hotelier Travelodge recently released an app especially for the iPhone which allows a user to find and book a room while travelling. Travelodge is just one example of a company in the travel industry capitalising on the iPhone's success as a brand.
Qantas too have jumped on the Apple band wagon. Last year it announced a mobile website specially designed to work with the iPhone's touch screen. The function and services offered are no different but it's a sign that airlines are taking note of Apple's growing dominance in the mobile market.
Research firm Gartner found that the iPhone's market share had doubled in the first quarter of 2009 to 10.8% from 5.3% year-on-year. Sales jumped to 3.9 million units from 1.7 million in 2008. BlackBerry also saw growth though more modest and from a relatively high starting point last year. BlackBerry's market share rose to 19.9% from 13.3%, while sales grew to 7.2 million from 4.2 million. Market leader Nokia, still the world's number one smartphone manufacturer, lost ground to the iPhone and Blackberry. Nokia's slice of the pie fell to 41.2% from 45.1%.
Ask any serious business traveller right now which device they'd choose, the iPhone or the BlackBerry, and most would say the latter. The iPhone is undoubtedly "cool" but it lacks compatibility with corporate IT. Microsoft saw fit to release a version of its Exchange server especially for the BlackBerry making it a more compatible ‘push' email device.
It appears that the iPhone will not be adopted as a tool in the buying and selling of travel until it can wrestle more market share from the technologically sophisticated BlackBerry. There are also many different models and variations of BlackBerry, each with different features and screen sizes, which have been around longer than the iPhone. There is even a touch screen BlackBerry, the Storm, which is proving popular.
But as the iPhone takes a greater share of the consumer market and asserts itself as the mobile phone to own, software companies and travel providers will seek to marry themselves to that success. Amadeus and KDS are already doing so with BlackBerrys and other smartphones for just that reason.
"I will certainly have an iPhone within the year," Mr Weisselberger said finally.