May 27, 2009, 9:30 AM — Portable yet powerful, the laptop has become the machine of choice for the modern business user. But for anyone with extensive experience pushing the limits of its portability (in coach, on the bus, anywhere power outlets come at a premium), the lure of the laptop may be losing its luster -- especially in light of recent advances in netbooks.
And while the wise foresee ARM-based netbooks running some flavor of Linux as the long-term solution for business users' portable computing fix, the (arguably) foolish among us hunger for even smaller devices. After all, today’s smartphones look more and more like computers, with keyboards, browsers, storage, pointing devices, and even applications.
Not one to steer clear of a challenge or the chance to be labeled "crazy" by colleagues, I decided to spend a month seeing how far I could go toward replacing my laptop with one of the two more popular smartphones on the market, the BlackBerry 9000 (Bold) and the iPhone 3G. It seems as if everywhere I go people are constantly immersed in their BlackBerrys and iPhones. Surely, there’s more to them than e-mail and phone calls. I quickly learned the addiction of always-accessible e-mail, but even though the BlackBerry won’t replace my laptop any time soon, I can see the pocket-based revolution coming where a device like it will edge aside a laptop for much of my day. (As for my month-long experience on the iPhone, stay tuned for that tomorrow.)
[ Which mobile device is the best? InfoWorld pits the BlackBerry versus the iPhone in its mobile deathmatch. | Dive deep into the next-gen mobile devices in InfoWorld’s PDF special "mobile 2.0" report. ]
E-mail: BlackBerry’s key business benefit
Research in Motion’s premier executive BlackBerry, the BlackBerry 9000 (Bold), offers a full QWERTY keyboard, midsize screen, built-in browser, the ability to run apps, and both 3G and Wi-Fi networking. In other words, there's enough on paper to entice you to ditch your laptop, but not enough in practice to keep you from regretting it.
If anything, the BlackBerry is designed primarily as a messaging device, and it’s amazing how addictive messaging on a BlackBerry can be. Too addicting, in fact -- over the course of the month, I had to develop a certain inner fortitude to consciously stop checking for messages and attend to other concerns, like my family.
Downtime on my train-and-bus commute, where I normally catch up on magazines, was no longer downtime. Neither were rides to and from the airport. Nor many moments standing in line for coffee, groceries, and so on. “Going smartphone” kept me up with everything that was happening at the office and with colleagues, no matter the time zone difference between us.
[ See the BlackBerry Bold in action in InfoWorld’s guided tour. ]
Well, usually. Train tunnels between stations had me riding out five-minute connectivity gaps, thumbs poised on the keyboard itching to reconnect to outside world. And a trip to New York found me without data service from Wall Street to Chelsea, reminding me just how dependent on AT&T -- the Bold’s exclusive U.S. carrier, and one notorious for inadequate coastal coverage -- my always-on connectivity addiction had become.
I became proficient at two-thumb typing in a matter of days, although numerals never came easy due to the Alt key’s too-close placement, meaning that anything that required numbers or symbols had me going at a snail’s pace. Still, sending and replying to messages was a breeze, and I can see why so many businesspeople can’t stop typing on their BlackBerrys.
Addressing messages, however, exposed my first frustrations in forgoing my laptop in favor of the BlackBerry. For example, you can select someone from your address book as you type in an address, but the BlackBerry doesn’t look up addresses of people you’ve received messages from or previously responded to, so you have to type those in completely. Those of us for whom collaboration is key depend on expediency of communication, and this kind of extra labor adds up fast.
Also labor-intensive was keeping my inbox free of unnecessary e-mail. Deleting messages is easy, but having to confirm whether you want to keep a deleted message on the server each time is a real slowdown. Fortunately, there’s an option to stop that. What I couldn’t do was multiple-delete messages unless they were contiguous, making it hard to get rid of the endless junk that streamed into my inbox.
In fact, managing e-mails on the Bold proved to be more of a pain than expected. The lack of options for mail filtering or blocking spam on the BlackBerry is to be expected for a mobile device, but time-stamping messages based on when the BlackBerry downloads them, not when they arrived at the server, wreaked havoc on my message order any time I was not connected to the Internet, such as when the battery died or I was on a plane. Choosing the Reconcile option compounded the problem, loading six months’ worth of archived e-mail onto the BlackBerry -- even though I had set a 30-day mail retention limit on the Bold -- all with the current date and time, burying real mail from that day beneath 9,000 “new” messages.
For many business users, organizing e-mail into folders is essential to remaining productive, as is the ability to sort e-mail based on rules -- functionality BlackBerry lacks. Using a BlackBerry Exchange Server to connect to my Exchange e-mail account for work meant my folder structure was replicated on the BlackBerry, and I could move messages to the folders without much trouble. But without Exchange mirroring the move on the server, I had to repeat that work back at my laptop. And once I moved messages on the laptop, they remained in the BlackBerry’s top-level index, keeping it cluttered. There is an option to actually move the mail, not jusy copy it -- the BlackBerry is full of such options that are hard to know exist, much less fine, even if you peruse the various setup options.
Navigating folders on the BlackBerry was also painful. Getting to the folders requires several steps in the BlackBerry’s menu system (most things do, unfortunately), and once I was in a folder to see messages, I had to start at the top again to switch folders. Soon enough, I stopped using e-mail folders on the BlackBerry altogether.
But the BlackBerry does offer worthwhile e-mail navigation. Press T to go to the top of your message list, B to move to the bottom, or U for the first unread message. Using a menu option, you can also search your messages by name, subject, message body, and e-mail account.
I also set up my personal e-mail account on the BlackBerry, which provides a separate e-mail icon for each account so that you can switch back and forth easily. That said, if you've set up multiple e-mail accounts, the folders created for each share the same name, so you can’t really tell what e-mail folder you’re opening. That confused me every time. The exception is an e-mail account set up through the BlackBerry Exchange Server, which establishes a root folder with a unique name.
All in all, the BlackBerry sufficed for on-the-go e-mail. But its poor organizational capabilities for e-mail (particularly around folders) made it unsuitable as a message manager. You’ll still need a laptop or desktop for that.
Calendars and contacts: Trade in your laptop, trade in some functionality
If you use BES (BlackBerry Enterprise Server), syncing the BlackBerry to your contacts and calendar is automatic, and thus easy. Yet the calendar proved to be hard to read and navigate, mainly because so much detail is stuffed into each entry. Of course, the BlackBerry’s lack of a true WYSWIG interface means that, even if some calendar information were hidden by default, you would have to wade through even more menu options to reveal it. Preferring too much information over more menu jockeying, I found myself thinking twice before opening calendar entries, relying instead on the title as a reminder.
Where things get tricky is syncing contacts and calendar items outside of BES, at least on a Mac. The BlackBerry has no native sync capability with Mac (which I use), but you can download from RIM a free copy of PocketMac, which lets Mac OS’ iSync utility connect the BlackBerry to iCal and Address Book. All BlackBerry-created calendar items are placed in an iCal calendar called PocketMac, and only iCal appointments set in that calendar are synced. But this is an iCal/iSync limitation that affects any device, not just the BlackBerry.
But Apple is not to blame for an annoyance in the BlackBerry’s contacts manager. When getting an e-mail from a new person, I tried to add the person to my contacts list so that I wouldn’t have to type in the e-mail address in the future when composing e-mails. There’s a menu option to do so, but if the e-mail doesn’t include the person’s first and last name, you can’t save the new contact until you enter that in. It’s a requirement that shouldn’t be needed.
Documents and apps: Awkward at best
E-mail is critical to business, but e-mail won’t do it alone. At least not for me. I work with documents -- spreadsheets and text files, mostly -- as well as with some online management tools.
My BlackBerry has the DataViz Documents to Go software installed (some carriers provide it at no charge; it costs $70), so I could open and edit Microsoft Office and PDF documents. (Note that the BlackBerry can’t display most formatting in Office documents, such as fonts.) They were a snap to open from e-mail attachments, even from zipped ones.
[ Discover the 10 free must-have BlackBerry apps. ]
Within the confines of the BlackBerry’s tiny screen, I could read documents, though zooming was awkward. The BlackBerry’s trackball is also hard to control, at times not seeming to move the pointer, other times zinging the pointer across the screen. I could perform basic edits, such as inserting text or deleting it, and apply basic formatting, such as boldface, to selected text. Through a somewhat awkward combination of menus and trackball highlighting, I could also cut and paste.
Those who hope to write a report or rework a spreadsheet on a BlackBerry will be sorely disappointed. It’s simply too hard with BlackBerry's limited UI and screen. And if you track revisions in Word, all that is lost when you save in Documents to Go, making it fine for touch-up and comment insertion, but not for “real” or collaborative work -- you’ll need your laptop at the hotel and on the plane.
As for using Google Docs, which we do at the office for shared planners, calendars, and working proposals, don’t bother. You can look at spreadsheets (one column at a time) and edit cells, and you can view calebndars and edit individual events -- with some serious effort. You can’t edit text documents.
I surveyed several sales- and marketing-oriented apps such as Salesforce.com and Salesplace. Clearly designed for a DOS-like environment, these forms-oriented apps proved underwhelming. I had a lot of trouble with Salesforce, which was often not available and twice caused the BlackBerry to crash and reboot (which takes forever). Salesforce’s primitive interface requires endless menu selections, and registration and setup are painful, and they required a reboot -- both common problems with the BlackBerry. Salesplace was easier to set up and less menu-intensive, but also more limited in its capabilities; ultimately it was no better an option than Salesforce.
Clearly, access to customer information and the ability to place orders is essential for salespeople on the go, and a mobile device should be handy for that. But the BlackBerry’s slow performance -- I felt that I spent more time staring at the wait icon and progress bars than actually using the applications -- and awkward app interfaces suggest a laptop or netbook is necessary for customer calls, with the BlackBerry useful only as a backup device.
The apps available at the BlackBerry App World store are not impressive, neither in breadth of offerings nor (in my sampling) in capabilities. And they’re expensive. The store is hard to navigate, and there is no way to look up apps on a PC. App installation is also awkward, with lots of confirmation screens; some even required the BlackBerry be restarted.
Of course, downloading an app is one thing; being able to find it once it has been downloaded is another. Anytime I wanted to use a downloaded app meant a treasure hunt was imminent. Was it in the Downloads folder? The Applications folder? The main folder? Any of the remaining seven folders? This got old fast.
Worst, most BlackBerry apps proved to be pure torture, ones to use only when you can’t use your laptop (or netbook) or write yourself a note for handling later at your desk.
Web and location services: A mixed bag
The columns view mode does help somewhat, stacking all of a page’s DIVs into a single column so that you don’t have to scroll sideways. The columns mode also tends to enlarge the text size, making it easier to read site contents. Still, you need to have no other option for accessing the Web before you can consider using the BlackBerry’s browser on a regular basis.
[ Developers looking to create their own BlackBerry apps must make several key choices. | InfoWorld’s Peter Wayner explains how to create Web apps for BlackBerrys and other modern mobile devices. ]
Of course, many sites offer a BlackBerry-specific, mostly textual version. These are essential to use the BlackBerry for the Web. When I tried to check a JetBlue flight’s status en route to JFK airport, the standard Web page’s DIVs meant I couldn’t actually get to the flight-status part of the page. Fortunately, the major airlines all have BlackBerry-enabled sites so that you can check flight schedules and so forth. (JetBlue began offering a BlackBerry-enabled site about a week after my access issues.)
These optimized sites are limited but usable. Of course, having a site technically optimized for the BlackBerry doesn’t mean it is optimized for use: Yahoo’s BlackBerry page is so awkwardly constructed, for example, that it’s not practical.
I quickly found myself waiting until I had my laptop before using the Web -- except for specific transactions, such as checking flight or bus status.
The BlackBerry has no included navigation app, so I went to the BlackBerry App World Store and downloaded the free, highly rated Gokivo Navigator, which does the trick. When the BlackBerry can find a GPS signal -- which for me meant being outside or very near a window -- it can locate you and draw you a map of where you want to go. But zooming and scrolling that map is hard: Not only is the trackball imprecise, but there’s a lag of several seconds, so you don’t really know where you’re scrolling, making it hard to follow along. Gokivo can use AT&T’s extra-cost Voice Navigator to talk you through the directions, as well as update to the map as you move. That combination duplicates what you’d expect from an in-car GPS navigator.
Hang on to that laptop
If my fantasy of throwing the Bold against the wall is any indication, my BlackBerry experience could be labeled a disappointment at best. As a messaging and travel companion device, it’s bearable. But the app and Web experiences are painful to the point of being questionably relevant. Ultimately, I felt let down. And I eagerly looked forward to using my computer instead.
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