The iPhone may be a huge success, or an elegant failure. Either way, it's no way for the rest of us to do business.

And so, right smack bang in the middle of gadget season - when people are figuring out their high-tech Christmas gifts and hot new items are coming out of the new year technology shows - here comes Apple's entry: a $500 mobile-phone-cum-iPod-cum-wireless-web-browser that has stolen the limelight from everything else.

Is it really as stuffed with innovative features as Steve Jobs made it sound from the stage at Macworld Expo last week? Nah. Most of those features have been around in one form or another for years. Apple just put them all together.

Which is part of what makes the iPhone such a brilliant idea - and such a terrible example for corporate IT.

Widescreen pocket media player? Been done. Handheld web browser? Been done. Quad-band GSM phone? Been done, in almost every way imaginable. Camera? Wi-Fi? Bluetooth? Old news. Even the all-touch-screen phone interface Jobs gushed over ("We're going to use the best pointing device in our world - we're born with 10 of them, our fingers") has been around since 2001.

Yes, Apple tweaked those features, polished them up and added some small enhancements such as "the pinch" for zooming in on web content. Mostly, though, Apple took a big pile of things that already work and then stitched them together into something new.

But does Apple know what users will actually do with the iPhone? Nope. Jobs all but admitted that last week when he claimed he was introducing three new products before unveiling the one real thing.

No doubt the people who worked for years to create the iPhone believe they've created a beautifully integrated all-in-one gadget. It's elegant. It's stylish. But it's a gadget whose real purpose - and future - depends on its users.

Maybe users will just decide it's the world's best (and most expensive) iPod. Maybe they'll see it mainly as the perfect pocket-size web-browsing device. Maybe Apple's cachet is so strong that some people really will want it as a $500 mobile phone.

Most likely, early iPhone buyers will end up mixing and matching those functions. They'll figure out what's useful and what's not. They'll discover uses that never occurred to the iPhone's designers.

And a year from now, those early adopters will have made clear to Apple what should come next - whether that means a big-screen iPod that's just an iPod, an even-more-beefed-up web/phone combo, or just a big hole in Apple's product line where the iPhone used to be.

For Apple, the iPhone's identity crisis is a gamble - and an opportunity to let users tell the company what the product is good for. Listening to those users isn't just a good idea. It's crucial. They'll tell Apple how to be successful.

So, why is that such an awful example for us?

In IT, we need to listen to users too. To be successful, we have to pay attention to what users actually do with the software and hardware we deploy. Those people are the ones who can tell us what's right and wrong with our systems, and show us problems and advantages we'd otherwise never know about.

But we don't have the luxury of years to build applications that bundle together a lot of good ideas. We can't afford an identity crisis. And we definitely can't risk waiting until after we've dropped a system in users' hands to find out whether we're on the right track.

Our job is to cut that risk - with prototypes, user input and feedback, and plenty of hands-on testing as we develop a system. Sure, we know what works. That's not enough. We need to learn what our users will do with it. And we need to learn that early and often.

We have the opportunity to know what our users need before we finish our elegant, stylish work. And we can't afford not to.

So, as we all lust after Apple's shiny new gadget, just remember this: The iPhone may be a brilliant success - or an elegant failure. No one knows for sure yet.

But we can be sure that what works for the iPhone is still a very bad idea for IT.