Smartphones That Keep You Connected


Android, iPhone, Blackberry, Windows Mobile


There are iPhone people, BlackBerry people, Microsoft people and, pardon the phrase, Android people.

They will each fiercely defend their platform, attack the others, and take out a carrier or two in the crossfire. Ask someone what would make them panic more: losing their smartphone or losing their wallet, and most will have to stop and give it some thought.

These devices bridge the gap between work and home. They carry important PowerPoints and manage MP3 playlists. Some can access the corporate network, some can't.

But they all allow us to take the Internet, corporate data, and our digital lives with us, everywhere, all the time.

For this Bake-Off, reviewers looked at phones based on Microsoft's Windows Mobile, Research In Motion's (RIM) BlackBerry, Apple's iPhone and Google's Android. Although there are other contenders out there, including current market-share leader Symbian and PDA pioneer Palm, we focused our attention this month on the platforms with the fastest growth in both share and ecosystem.

Microsoft Windows Mobile

A dominant name in computing worldwide, Microsoft, Redmond, Wash., has built its name on the prevalent Windows operating system. When the PDA was in its early years, the company created Pocket PC, a stripped-down, touch-screen version of the popular desktop OS. This has evolved into what is now called Windows Mobile.

Although there is a generally accepted definition of the term smartphone, Microsoft chooses to still call touch-screen devices running its OS Pocket PCs, while it reserves the title of smartphone for the more restrictive non-touch devices. Following this nomenclature, Windows Mobile Standard is for smartphones, while the Professional version is for Pocket PCs.

Windows Mobile offers users the recognizable look of its desktop namesake. Along with other features, such as a Start Menu and System Tray, this similar interface can be a positive virtue for first-time users who are already familiar with it. Overall though, the miniature size of contemporary phones leaves the task of scrolling through screens of icons to be a little bit of an annoyance. This is especially true of Windows Mobile Standard, which uses the phone's control pads and buttons as its only form of navigation.

That isn't to say Windows Mobile doesn't have its strong points too. The main "Today" screen can be very helpful, with an assortment of At-A-Glance type information available along with shortcuts to frequently used applications.

In addition, among other things, its longevity and Microsoft heritage partially account for the availability of a vast amount of compatible applications. Needless to say, one of those applications, a version of the MS Office suite, includes Outlook for connecting to an Exchange server. Until a few years ago, this made Windows Mobile a very popular choice among corporate users.

Although there are many positive aspects to both versions of Windows Mobile, the OS is definitely showing signs of age. With each new update, Microsoft continues to add new features and functionality; but many times it is playing catch-up to the options of competing devices.

In addition, the cellular carriers usually make the final decision on whether to implement updates to phones on their network. While some carriers are quick to update many of the devices they offer, others only update the newest models. Unfortunately, this is the case with most smartphones, and it's not unique to Windows Mobile.

Research In Motion BlackBerry

Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM quickly gained a place in the market with its BlackBerry line of devices. Until recently, most BlackBerry models were noted for their wider-than-average case and full QWERTY, tactile keyboards. With a tiny thumb-controlled trackball centered below the screen, users can easily scroll through menus and application icons.
Known for being very secure, BlackBerry devices are dominant in the corporate environment. Each smartphone must connect to the company's operation center, which functions as a sort of proxy between it and whichever server it is trying to reach (for example, an e-mail server). IT administrators must install the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) software, which logs onto RIM's network. From this server, they can activate, configure and set policies for the wireless devices of the users they support. When a BlackBerry is turned on, it also logs onto RIM's network. From this point on, RIM's network operates as the conduit through which the device and BES communicate.

For individual wireless users, the wireless carrier maintains a server running BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS), which functions similarly to the BES. Via the BIS, users are able to connect to the Internet and personal e-mail accounts.

While this configuration allows for a secure and controllable connection, the downside is that every BlackBerry must connect to the servers at RIM's operation center for most data functions. This has the potential to create mass outages should RIM have a problem providing its part of the service. While the service has been historically reliable, there have been multiple instances of outages spreading from individual carriers to sometimes the entire globe. Fortunately, these types of outages are few and (usually) far between.

The BlackBerry device was originally intended for the business community to have a way to send and receive e-mails while away from the office. With its Push technology, the e-mail server (usually Microsoft Exchange) notifies the BES when a new message arrives. The BES, in turn, copies the e-mail and almost instantaneously forwards it to the appropriate user. In addition, the well-designed keyboard makes it relatively easy to type out replies, as well as new messages.

As the prices of memory continued to decrease and faster cellular broadband speeds became a reality, many wireless handset manufacturers began to focus on multimedia features for their phones. Not wanting to be left behind, RIM followed the trend and started releasing models with both audio and video functionality. It also launched some thinner, more consumer-friendly models, which are available in a variety of colors as well.

The most recent BlackBerry to hit store shelves, the Storm, offers the latest "must-have" feature of a completely touch-screen interface, with the added unique twist of a tactile click when the screen is pressed down.

Unfortunately, with each new model, RIM must tweak the formerly rock-solid operating system. This has left it with no less than three existing versions concurrently available, each with its own set of problems.

As RIM continues to iron out the issues, its multitude of devoted fans, which affectionately call the devices "Crackberrys" because of their addictive nature, stand by the company.

Although it has sat on its laurels a little longer than it probably should have, RIM is quickly playing catch-up with a bevy of models being released, for pretty much every carrier. While there are still some hiccups that need to be addressed, the consistent security model it delivers cannot be ignored. Users looking for the latest and greatest model will have to be a little tolerant as the company works its way through the learning curve, but strict corporate users still have a nice selection of older, reliable versions to choose from.

Apple iPhone

Love it or hate it, Apple, with its iPod and iPhone lineups, has revolutionized portable communications and multimedia. During the first quarter of 2009, in arguably the worst economic environment in a generation, Apple still managed to sell almost 4 million iPhones.
As a convergence of the widely popular multimedia players with a cellular phone, the iPhone has been unique in many ways, most notably by its complete touch-screen interface. Signing an exclusive contract (in the U.S.) with AT&T Wireless, the iPhone singlehandedly drove many customers to switch carriers.

The touch-screen GUI is both attractive and extremely easy to navigate. It is fined-tuned to need just the right amount of pressure for sliding and tapping a finger (or two) and is built much more solidly than its appearance lets on.

With literally thousands of third-party programs available almost immediately after launch, the company's App Store allows users to browse, purchase and download applications directly on the device, as well as via the desktop client iTunes. Songs and videos can also be synched to the iPhone using iTunes.

Obviously a consumer device, the iPhone originally lacked many of the features corporate users require, specifically Exchange and Notes e-mail integration. Other minor annoyances, such as a recessed headphone jack, bothered end users, but at the same time created a whole new vertical market of accessories specifically designed for it.
Another drawback of the first model was that it only used AT&T's slower EDGE data network. This limited the iPhone's capabilities. Taking complaints into consideration, the next-generation model used the faster 3G network for connectivity.

While the iPhone was slow in winning over business users out of the gate, semiregular upgrades to its operating system created additional functionality, most notably the ability to seamlessly integrate the device with Microsoft Exchange e-mail, contacts and calendaring.

Unlike the BlackBerry platform, in which corporate administrators and VARs can control which devices can access accounts that are routed to a BlackBerry server, we have found that it's possible for end users—who have only basic networking knowledge—to integrate iPhones to Exchange by themselves. This can be a blessing to some networks (considering ease-of-use and manpower issues), or a curse (considering potential security breaches.) Whichever way you wish to look at it, nobody can argue the fact that the iPhone platform has picked up significant growth since it integrated with Exchange.
With built in Wi-Fi, system administrators will still be wary of allowing the device on their network due to the security loopholes it opens up.

Apple is currently prepping iPhone 3.0, and has released code to developers. With plans for more powerful user interface features (including sideways touch-typing to mimic slider phones), as well as support for photo SMS messages, iPhone 3.0 will warrant a standalone review once it is generally released later this year.

The iPhone is as enjoyable to use, as it is beautiful to look at. Apparently listening to its customers' complaints and suggestions, Apple continues to improve the OS with each new version.

Google Android
A proponent of the open-source model, Mountain View, Calif.-based Google has been making a name for itself in the smartphone space—expanding outside the search engine arena into pretty much anything remotely related to the Internet. The highly anticipated Android operating system is its foray into the smartphone market.

Designed on a Linux-based kernel, the Android first appeared on the T-Mobile G1 made by HTC, which combines the BlackBerry trackball and the iPhone's touch screen. More Android devices from other manufacturers have been announced and will soon enter the market.

Upon powering on the G1 for the first time, we were prompted to log on using a Gmail account. Although this won't be a big deal for most, anyone who doesn't already have one will feel their frustration level rise as they try to come up with a user name that hasn't already been taken. This is no different than creating a new Gmail account online, but we found it especially annoying on the Android, perhaps because we couldn't check out the phone's feature set until we got past this stage.

Still in its first iteration, Android has an attractive interface that is fairly intuitive to use. Most features available on other smartphones are here, too, with a majority of them integrated with Google Services (such as Gmail). Those who already use many of Google's online offerings will especially appreciate Android, because less time will be needed for set up and configuration.

Similar to RIM and Apple, Google offers the Android Market, where applications can be bought and downloaded. Like BlackBerry, programs can also be obtained from other locations. Since Android is still in its infancy, the quantity of available third-party applications is below that of competing smartphones, however its open-source nature gives it huge potential. We have no doubt that developers will be supporting the OS with unique applications in the coming months.

The Bottom Line: By one point, Apple's iPhone came out on top of the BlackBerry, falling behind only in its minimal corporate support. The BlackBerry has always been a steadfast and secure device, and it still leads the pack in this area. If secure, corporate connectivity is required, we still recommend any of the BlackBerry devices RIM offers. That said, Apple is going to great lengths to bring the iPhone into the corporate world, and we expect it to soon come into its own if the company continues to update the device based on customer feedback.

While Windows Mobile and Android are also separated by one point, the aging Microsoft product appears to be on its way down, while Google's OS has just shot out of the starting gate. With the open-source community behind it, Android is positioned to quickly move up in the standings. It will be interesting to see how far it comes and how fast it is along the way. Although it came in last place for this battle, the war isn't over yet. The potential is there for Android to make big strides in the upcoming months; only time will tell if it has the stamina to go the distance, but think it will.

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