• September 1, 2008
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

CRM Dials into the iPhone

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With the July release of the Apple iPhone 3G—offering greater speed and higher-bandwidth data access than the version that debuted a year ago—business application vendors (including such CRM notables as Oracle and Salesforce.com) began offering downloadable utilities through the iPhone App Store. The new version of the iPhone software, made extensible by Apple’s release of a software development kit earlier this year, is far more enterprise-compatible than the first, with corporate-strength email capabilities that are on par with those available in the market-leading BlackBerry platform and other Windows-compatible handhelds. (That’s one reason Apple’s one of our Rising Stars this year.)  

Of the more than 500 iPhone-native applications made available at the App Store’s launch, only a handful are designed for enterprise use. But accentuating the early success of these applications is the fact that Apple had imposed a gag order on developers, preventing them from advertising or otherwise disclosing prior to the launch date what would be available.

The CRM-related downloads include Oracle Business Indicators, which builds upon Fusion middleware and Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition Plus (OBIEE) to provide a mobile interface for critical business information. Chief financial officers can view the latest company financial trends; sales managers can be alerted to sales performance and customer satisfaction issues; and commodity managers can quickly assess the viability of a supplier, all from the iPhone, according to Oracle. The Indicators application can be downloaded free of charge for users with either an existing OBIEE license for on-premises use or an existing subscription for on-demand use.

Indicators is the first in a series of applications Oracle promises to deliver to the iPhone platform, including CRM applications, says Lenley Hensarling, group vice president of Oracle Application Development. These will include a mobile sales assistant, a set of sales productivity apps, and the recently announced Sales Prospector, though no prices or dates had been set at press time. 

Not to be left behind, Salesforce.com announced that its Salesforce CRM applications and the company’s Force.com platform are available on Apple’s App Store as Salesforce Mobile for iPhone. As with Oracle’s announcement, existing Salesforce Unlimited Edition customers can download Salesforce Mobile for free.

Salesforce Mobile for iPhone integrates with the iPhone’s native functions such as email and maps, allowing users to navigate customer records such as accounts, contacts, and opportunities; initiate phone calls and emails from within Salesforce CRM; and query the Salesforce CRM application for desired customer information, which is then sent to their iPhone.

Salesforce Mobile for iPhone will also enable new and existing native Force.com applications—the company boasts there are currently more than 72,000 such applications—to be quickly revamped for use on the iPhone.

While iPhone functionality will be useful to any traveling or remote worker, both Oracle and Salesforce.com are targeting the user most likely to be mobile—the salesperson—and emphasizing sales visibility. “Getting a foot in the door”—the traditional trope of the door-to-door salesman—also applies to the rapidity of deployment and the no-cost approach. This is especially the case with Oracle Business Indicators, which, Hensarling says, “is information-only”—that is, a read-only application; actual user interactivity will come with the planned subsequent releases. Where it may lead is unclear, he adds. “This is a new distribution model for us, and new territory.”

The iPhone is actually familiar territory for some CRM vendors, notably NetSuite, which has offered its users full access via the iPhone’s Safari Web browser since the massively popular handheld was launched in June 2007. Through the iPhone’s browser, NetSuite offers users the ability to do more than merely access existing information, as this first round of iPhone apps seems limited to; users of NetSuite’s SuitePhone interface can create new orders, new contacts, and new opportunities, and can also access all product pricing and customer information. (A NetSuite spokesperson confirms that the vendor did not have an iPhone-native application available for download as of the App Store July launch date, but offers no indication about whether the company intends to build one in the future.)

As the demand among iPhone-using CRM professionals heats up, the competition among CRM vendors to accommodate that demand will surely lead to further application development. Mobile users may benefit from the added value—assuming the iPhone-native apps are robust enough to provide some—but whether those applications can add revenue for the vendors—or whether they'll remain free downloads for existing customers—remains an unanswered question.

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