Clash of the handsets: Smartphones for business

By Tom Yager, InfoWorld |  Mobile & Wireless, Android, Apple

Enterprises and professionals looking to purchase new mobile devices can make choices, as consumers do, based on the first couple of weeks of positive hype and buzz. But unlike consumers, professionals' investment in a mobile device, platform, and wireless carrier is a vital one.

When you choose a smartphone for business, you are likely choosing the best or only way that your boss, your colleagues, and your family can be sure to reach you. There is more likely to be a calculable dollar value attached to inbound, work-related e-mail. A workflow can stall, a customer can go ballistic, a trigger can get pulled prematurely because some communication gets past you, or you may need to call somebody you thought was in your handset's contacts list.

[ As smartphones evolve into serious computers, the worlds of iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Nokia Symbian, Palm, and Windows Mobile offer developers new possibilities. See A developer's eye view of smartphone platforms. ]

Reviews play an important role in device selection, but the best thing to do is to talk to people who have lived with what you're considering, who are already locked in, and who, through some weeks or months of experience, have strong opinions and insightful anecdotes to pass along. This is a "review" that aims both to compare the top professional devices and to serve as the expert friend. I have done my best to put myself in the role of the colleague you'd ask, "What do you think of your phone?"

As InfoWorld's resident smartphone reviewer, I evaluate the best candidates for business users as they become available. I also do continuous real-life testing on a group of enterprise and professional mobile handsets, rotating devices whenever I take a business trip and switching regularly during long stretches at home.

Whichever device is under test becomes my exclusive communications channel. All of my calls and e-mail are forwarded to it. People who contact me by IM do so -- or fail to -- through that device. It's the only way I can find my route to unfamiliar destinations. I use the device to get my news, check site statistics, and keep track of my servers. If you're seeking a smartphone to play a similarly prominent role in your daily life, my experience should help you zero in on the right one.

This group of phones is not meant to be all inclusive, but it's varied enough to force a rotation of carrier, platform, and device type. The seven current-generation contenders, with default or exclusive carriers indicated, are the AT&T Fuze/HTC Touch Pro (AT&T 3G), BlackBerry Storm (Verizon 3G), T-Mobile G1 (T-Mobile 3G), Apple iPhone 3G (AT&T), BlackBerry Curve (T-Mobile EDGE), HTC Touch Diamond (Sprint 3G), and BlackBerry Bold (AT&T 3G). Each of these phones has been evaluated by InfoWorld, most of them by me. This article goes beyond those isolated reviews to draw out the handsets' comparative strengths and weaknesses and examine their usability over time.

Drawing the lines
Rather than try to define the non-existent typical professional phone buyer, I'll group devices simplistically by class: fixed QWERTY, sliding QWERTY, and touch. Rather than rank the phones on some precise scale, I'll simply let you know if it stays in my rotation -- that is, becomes a standard against which new devices are judged or is sent out.

All of the vendors and carriers involved in this continuous project have bent review policies and shouldered significant unbudgeted costs with no certainty of positive editorial. The participation of AT&T, HTC, RIM, Apple, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile indicate a willingness to shoot straight with customers. That in itself is a key selection criteria.

Category: Fixed QWERTY
In: BlackBerry Curve and BlackBerry Bold

If it appears that I give these BlackBerry handsets more attention than other devices, note that I use this first section to describe usage patterns, requirements, preferences, and infrastructure that apply to all of the phones here.

I originally marked the BlackBerry Curve out of rotation in favor of the Bold, but I found that each hits a substantially different target. The Bold is unquestionably the enterprise device of the two and a best-in-class choice for the top-echelon technical professional.

The Curve is the BlackBerry you'd buy for yourself and bring to work. I carried it in my pocket, the only QWERTY device here that allows it, so every morning I found the Curve on my dresser with my wallet and keys. The bulkier Bold ends up wherever I used it last. I carry the Bold around the house like a cordless phone, although ironically, it's the Curve that truly functions in that capacity (see the review).

It's in rotating straight from the Bold to the Curve that made the Curve seem like a device to knock off the list. Compared to the Bold, the Curve seem cheaply made and cramped; the Curve is harder to type on and harder to see. But on its own, and after a switch to the Curve from anything but the Bold or the iPhone 3G, the Curve seems decently made, what I'd call a two-year phone. The Bold is a five-year device, quick for a BlackBerry, and while by no means luxurious, pleasant to drive. The Curve is a lateral step, neither up or down, from an 8800-series BlackBerry.

On seeing a friend's Escalade, I was immediately struck by its appropriateness as a visual and functional metaphor for the BlackBerry Bold. The device is rugged, as if you could drive a nail with it, yet it is by far the handsomest, fastest, and most productive BlackBerry (in terms of bundled software and ease and pleasure of use) that RIM has produced. It feels natural to keep several applications running at once, something I avoid on other phones. I treat the Bold like an ultra-ultra-mobile PC.

Much of what seems to me technologically marvelous about the Bold as a reviewer becomes transparent to me as a user. Without looking back at the press release or my review (both of which I intentionally don't reread after my review is filed), I can't recite the things that are new about the Bold or BlackBerry's retooled platform. It just takes less time to compose and read e-mail on the Bold. My eyesight improves dramatically when I switch into the Bold. Documents I ordinarily have to scroll around in (I live in DataViz Documents to Go) fit better and are more readable on the Bold's smaller display. The Bold doesn't have to live on its charger as the other phones do.

I have Exchange Server running here, with BlackBerry Enterprise Server in a virtual machine. My workaday mail server is a quieter, simpler Xserve. It pairs reasonably well with every device here. My e-mail experience changes when I carry a BlackBerry handset. Xserve does BlackBerry push e-mail; when a new message comes in, my BlackBerry buzzes in a couple of seconds. The only configuration change required on the server side is forwarding inbound messages to the BlackBerry account I created.

Forwarding to a Google Gmail (free) or Apple MobileMe ($99 per year) cloud service hurries messages to a T-Mobile G1 and iPhone 3G, respectively. Xserve hands outbound mobile mail to RIM's, Google's, or Apple's infrastructure. The last two are pitched to consumers and disclaimed for professional use. I take that guidance to heart. But in all cases, I forward mail to my mobile device while keeping a copy on Xserve. Anything that slips through the cracks will hit me when my MacBook Pro or PC checks in.

I rarely use any handset's Wi-Fi. It is a phone battery's mortal enemy, and if I forget to turn it off, my device's battery drains rapidly on standby. People forget, too, that a wireless is no desktop. Wi-Fi is not fast. Except for latency, you can scarcely notice the difference between Wi-Fi and 3G.

Using the Bold causes me to peg DataViz Documents to Go and TeleNav turn-by-turn navigation as device essentials. It also clues me to Google Sync. Sync now has all seven smartphones, plus my MacBook Pro, aligned for contacts and appointments. The fact that Google's free cloud knows who I know and where I'll be doesn't worry me, but it's an individual choice. An enterprise should be paranoid in general about letting company data cross into people's private contacts, inboxes, and calendars. I'm hardly the only professional that appreciates the convenience and platform-agnostic nature of Google's free cloud. I did not expect Google to play a starring role on a BlackBerry.

Category: Sliding QWERTY
In: T-Mobile G1
Out: AT&T Fuze (HTC Touch Pro)

I would not have voted for the Android-based T-Mobile G1 when it was new. It was awkward and a pure geek gadget at first, but it is growing up, palpably and non-disruptively, showing that Google understands professionals rely on Android. You'll find no one more skeptical than I, but Android is a real, validated mobile platform, not an open source project whose authors disclaim with "use at your own risk."

The recent arrival of Documents to Go and TeleNav helped morph the G1 into a professional device. When commercial ISVs rely on a platform for revenue, it signals that a platform has made it, that it's no flash in the pan. Those ISVs are essential to the G1, which has a comparatively weak standard app bundle. But just as Apple's App Store makes it easy for users to spackle gaps in the iPhone, Android Market is equipping the G1 to do the same. Android and iPhone are owned, commercial platforms with specific and necessary ties to carriers. It's the only way to pull off downloadable software catalogs that are considered part of the platform.

In use, the Android UI is ingenious, and HTC's handset makes a good, not exceptional, home for it. The G1's combination of touch (no stylus), trackball, and Menu button take me everywhere I want to go with minimal effort. I use the G1 primarily as a touch device, extending the keyboard only to make the display flip from portrait to landscape mode.

AT&T's Fuze (aka the HTC Touch Pro) loses because, like the BlackBerry Storm, the Fuze is a handset I couldn't bring myself to carry after three determined tries. The Fuze is a thick, heavy, sluggish phone, the bulkiest device in this test group, and there's no obvious reason for it. It is markedly slower to boot and less responsive than its keyboardless equivalent, the HTC Touch Diamond. I like the Fuze's keyboard much better than the G1's (in daylight, the G1's backlight is uneven and infrequently lit), but that's not enough to salvage the Fuze.

The G1 is almost exclusively a touch device for me, and as with other widescreen phones, I use it mostly in landscape mode. Android doesn't yet have a platform-standard on-screen keyboard, but in all other regards the platform is perfect for it. The G1 does not have -- and does not need -- a stylus. Touch gestures, a trackball, and the Menu button simplify the G1's basic navigation, but I can't call using the G1 intuitive. It takes some ramping-up time whenever I switch to the G1, and it isn't wired into my brain yet whether taking an app off my screen forces it to exit or shoves it into the background (I have that trouble with Windows Mobile, too).

The G1's insistence that I register the device with a Google ID gives me pause. Google's cloud services aren't yet as focused and organized as iTunes. If my G1 is dependent on Google, what if its consumer-oriented cloud goes wobbly? Does my phone go down? I kept a critical eye on that connection and found that interdependence wasn't that strong. My Gmail inbox, contacts, and calendar stay in sync for me. My participation in Google's cloud is voluntary. Google feeds Android Market and keeps my G1 firmware updated over the air, so there is no desktop client and no need to hook into a PC. The G1 is utterly wireless.

You won't buy and deploy the G1 in gross unless you're setting up custom apps, for which the the G1 is well-suited, perhaps better than any device here. Android won't lock down or manage centrally the way the AT&T Fuze, BlackBerry, and, to an increasing extent, iPhone can. Nor will the G1 hook tightly into Exchange except as a POP or IMAP server. The combination of the Android UI, Android Market, Google's cloud, and T-Mobile's 3G network make the G1 a great choice.

Category: Touch
In: iPhone 3G
Out: BlackBerry Storm, HTC Touch Diamond

Here, the choice is easy. The BlackBerry Storm is RIM's first tilt at touch. It comes so close to working that it pains me to slam it, but it's unavoidable. The display is ideal. The device has a clean, if oversized, look. But a simple, fundamental flaw makes the device a poor contender. The trouble is, the Storm's screen is hinged at one end (the top, left or right depending on how you're holding it) rather than floating at the edges. The hinge and the touch screen don't mix.

RIM decided to go its own way with a touch screen that you press down to activate whatever control you've highlighted with your finger. Instead of the iPhone's lift and tap, the Storm is point and press. The screen becomes much harder to click as you get closer to the hinge. Typing with the landscape on-screen keyboard is a real challenge. I ended up mashing in the same place multiple times to get a response: "I said (click)... I said (click)... I SAID..." If RIM had done the Storm with tap instead of mash-to-click, it might be a different story.

HTC's Touch Diamond is, as I said, the AT&T Fuze (HTC Touch Pro) without a keyboard. It is much lighter and easily the most pocketable device of the lot. It gets voted out for a couple of unfortunate, fundamental design shortcomings. Its front panel buttons -- home, escape, call, and disconnect -- are blacked out, invisible unless they're lit. Unlike on the BlackBerry, the controls go dark whenever the screen does. To light and use the buttons, I had to press the power button and rub my finger around the control panel until Touch Diamond heard me. Then I'd only get a few seconds with the controls before they vanished. The navigation ring is an alluring substitute for up, down, left, and right buttons, but it's imprecise, and it had a frequent tendency to activate home or escape when trying to navigate left or right. The Touch Diamond is redeemable. It's just more work than I'm willing to put into using a phone.

If the Touch Diamond had an app store, I might be more forgiving. Apple endowed the iPhone with many grand qualities, but App Store makes the device. The selection of apps sets a pattern that I wish would become an industry standard. I keep coming back to it, but it's key: A phone should get better and do more the longer I own it. Apple is still keeping my first-generation iPhone and iPod Touch up to date, avoiding the legacy ball and chain by using frameworks and dev tools that make underlying platform changes transparent to developers and users. When developers do make changes to their software, App Store pushes updates to me for free, and applications that I buy are licensed for use on five devices.

The iPhone's low point is its power management. The device has short battery life, an inaccurate battery gauge, and long charging time. The result? Both of the iPhone 3G units I have here -- this way I know that it's not trouble with one phone -- can unexpectedly drop from a quarter tank to dry as a bone without any warning. The iPhone is the phone most likely to die on standby, and it does so without a whimper.

Still, I forgive it. The iPhone 3G has App Store, and great Office and PDF document viewers. It's the only device that does a serious job of playing video. I like writing code for it, and after lengthy use and extensive work with enterprise management tools, I no longer have reservations about recommending the iPhone 3G for enterprise deployment. I do recommend keeping the numbers small until you get the hang of Apple's management tools.

QWERTY or touch?
I came away from this process sure of one thing: There is a mobile device to fit every professional's needs. To find your perfect fit, first consider which of the form factors I've described suits you.

If you primarily communicate by writing, you need a fixed QWERTY device, and in this group, that's BlackBerry Bold or Curve. Spell checking, auto-correction of common typos, automatic capitalization and periods, editable shortcut dictionaries, and ergonomic, intuitive keyboard layouts make every message you send look like it came from your desk. The ability to read and edit Office documents, send and save arbitrary attachments, and transfer files without special software make Bold and Curve ideal choices for people who write. Choosing between these devices could be a matter of style.

A sliding QWERTY device gets you a wide screen and a wide keyboard in one package. Devices like T-Mobile G1 aren't great for writing at length. But their slide-out keyboards can have meta keys that make them workable for things like terminal emulation and remote system management. Their other ideal usage model is interactive browsing. When you need to enter a complex URL or fill in a form, you slide out the keyboard. Otherwise, you navigate by touch screen and trackball. T-Mobile G1 works this combination to near perfection.

A pure touch device is for reading, watching, staying informed, staying in contact, staying on schedule. It's a readout panel for an array of real-time sensors and always-on receivers that you've programmed with your preferences, and access to any of them is at most two gestures away, no matter what the device is doing now. A touch device like iPhone is the tool of a person who always wants to know. iPhone is a poor tool for producing content because it is designed to be the perfect tool for gathering and displaying it.

One thing that all of these devices share is a capacity to entertain. They all play MP3s. All of the leaders here play video clips and have built-in cameras. All let you download and install third-party software directly from the handset. Enjoying a mobile device is not a luxury; it's a necessity even in the stuffiest of business or agency environments. A mobile device is of absolutely no use if you don't carry it, and if you don't enjoy using it, you'll lay it down every chance you get. When you find one that you still can't put down even months after you've bought it, you've found a match.

Tom Yager is chief technologist of the InfoWorld Test Center. He also writes InfoWorld's Ahead of the Curve blog.

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