RoboForm password manager for iPhone faces hurdles

We've praised the RoboForm password manager on the desktop. Here's why the iPhone version falls short.

RoboForm on iPhone

Securely see stored passwords on your iPhone.

(Credit: Siber Systems)

We have long regarded the RoboForm browser toolbar for Windows as an uberconvenient freemium tool for storing and securing scores of passwords. In contrast, the new iPhone app, RoboForm for iPhone, is decidedly less acommodating.

The problem isn't so much that you have to have a free online account to use RoboForm for iPhone, or even that to have the online account you must first fill up the desktop version--either the free or premium software--with credentials. Part of the trouble is more that restrictions in Apple's SDK inhibit RoboForm's usefulness. Other flaws stem from the application itself.

It's helpful to understand how RoboForm works on your PC. RoboForm installs as a system tray icon and as a browser toolbar. It works with Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome. When you enter your log-in credentials, RoboForm offers to save them, storing a file protected by 256 AES encryption on your computer. Selecting that credential later on from RoboForm's list fills in the log-in. In addition, you can keep credit card information and other sensitive data secured away in RoboForm, filling in online forms with a click when you go to buy an item online, for example. RoboForm secures passwords, includes a password generator, and uses one master password to manage the rest of your passwords.

The iPhone version of RoboForm is a cross between a data store and a unidirectional syncing app. It can give you access to the passwords you store via RoboForm for the desktop, which makes the iPhone version inconvenient for new users. First-timers would have to first set up an account, install RoboForm, input their passwords, automatically install the company's GoodSync syncing plug-in, and sync the secret data to an online account for which they would also have to register. In contrast, existing users only have to sign up for an online account, if they don't have one already, and sync data.

Once on RoboForm for iPhone, you sync to the online RoboForm account to transfer over your passwords and other credentials. Sounds reasonable so far, but here's the catch. Since Apple doesn't allow multiple third-party applications to run simultaneously, you can only fill in passwords from within RoboForm for iPhone--by clicking the Login button--and only then once you've entered your master password.

GoodSync plug-in for RoboForm.

RoboForm on the desktop automatically installs a syncing plug-in.

(Credit: Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)

A rival app, 1Password for iPhone, encountered similar hurdles when it debuted in July 2008 (review). Both 1Password and RoboForm for iPhone solve the tangle to some extent by including an in-app browser. The key to successfully using either app is to retrain yourself to open the password app to browse, instead of the Safari browser.

Assuming you believe that the benefits of RoboForm for iPhone outweigh the drawbacks of surfing the Web through a password app, there are two other solutions that might make RoboForm on iPhone less handy in some users' eyes. The iPhone's Safari browser features autofill in the iPhone 3.0 operating system update. If you opt out of that, you can take advantage of certain Web sites, like Google's Web apps, that offer to remember log-in credentials for you. RoboForm VP of Marketing, Bill Carey, counters that the software, in production for a decade, is more accurate in determining when to fill in credentials, and in some cases is more secure than browsers' password managers.

In addition to the awkward workaround for using RoboForm's smarts are other downsides. First, there are the known limitations. You cannot currently update or edit log-in information from within RoboForm on iPhone, making data currently one-directional--it flows into the iPhone, not out of it. RoboForm for iPhone won't work if your master password is four characters long. Your free account at RoboForm.com can't contain special characters, like the + or - symbol. RoboForm's publisher says that the company is working on fixes.

RoboForm for iPhone: Thinking about syncing.

RoboForm downloads passwords to the iPhone from your online account.

(Credit: Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)

We also encountered weak spots in testing RoboForm for iPhone. RoboForm for iPhone's practice of placing the Login button on the same screen as the exposed password pricks our nerves. Sure, you've already logged in with a Master password at this point, so theft is not an issue, but potentially flashing that information in public is. In addition, we received a "page invalid" error message when attempting to log in to Gmail. The same action worked flawlessly on RoboForm for Windows.

RoboForm's Carey informed us this is a known issue in which long URLs like Gmail and Wachovia Bank break on mobile phone browsers. The fix is fast, but since you can't edit on the iPhone yet, you'll need to be in front of a computer. In RoboForm on the PC, click Tools, then Edit Passcards. Change Gmail's log-in URL to http://www.gmail.com, then sync online and sync the iPhone app.

Kludgey workarounds like this make the app workable while development continues, but the weak spots are many, and the alternative options to using RoboForm on the iPhone are at this stage more robust. Existing users will get the most from RoboForm for iPhone. New users may want to weigh other options for the time being.

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