Is the iPhone the Right Phone for Small Business?

Most independent observers still name Apple’s iPhone as the best smartphone out there. It’s fast, slick, sturdy, and blessed with the biggest library of apps — including business apps. That’s why I carry one, and I have to admit I like it better than the Blackberry and Android devices I’ve used.

But does that mean the iPhone is the right smartphone for small businesses?

Not necessarily, for several reasons:

Reason #1: iPhones are expensive. An iPhone 4 starts at $199, and the 32GB model — the one you really want — costs $299. And as the Wall Street Journal pointed out today, other phone makers are busy trying to stake out positions selling the mainstream, midrange of smartphone users.

You can buy smartphones from vendors like RIM or Nokia or Motorola for a lot less than the price of even a $99 iPhone 3Gs. In fact, I’m seeing plenty of ads these days for smartphones that come free with a 2-year contract.

When it comes to hardware, Apple doesn’t do Free.

Sure, the price of the phone itself isn’t the big issue when you’re talking about a 2-year commitment of monthly fees that can top $100. But taking $200 or $300 off the table at the outset is a big deal, especially for cash-strapped small businesses.

Many small businesses may logically decide that an alternative smartphone is good enough, and opt to save the upfront cash.

(Also note that key apps – like spoken turn-by-turn directions – may be extra cost options on the iPhone but not on some competing models.)

Reason #2: A Shrinking Delta. While the iPhone may still be the best smartphone, that lead is narrowing with with every new Android phone (not to mention Blackberry’s and Windows Phone 7 models). Buying an iPhone now may get you the state of the art, but whatever phone you buy now is likely to look pretty lame 18 months into that 2-year contract.

Reason #3: AT&T. In New York and San Francisco, particularly, AT&T’s service is often dinged for dropped calls, outages and coverage gaps. While there are strong rumors of iPhones on Verizon coming in 2011, there’s no certainty there. If AT&T is a problem where you live, then so is an iPhone.

Reason #4: iTunes. If the iPhone is the perfect tool for the modern road warrior, then iTunes may be its Achilles’ Heel. While I like most everything about my iPhone, iTunes is a big, bloated, hard-to-figure-out mess. It’s always messing me up, forcing me to find someone who knows it for help, and or giving me instructions that don’t make any sense. I hate it with an ever-growing passion, but that’s not even the point.

The point is that iTunes is a poor choice for business environments, as it’s all about playing music and video and buying stuff, not handling business tasks. The calendar and email stuff is buried beneath mountains of music management tasks aimed at consumers, not business users.

Every time I try to synch my iPhone I long for the simplicity of Android’s drag and drop synching – and many experienced computers feel the same way.

Still, despite the hassles and the expense and the spotty service and increasingly competent alternatives, I’m still happy with my iPhone 4 and don’t really want to switch to anything else.

Your mileage may vary, of course.