Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Primer on smartphones for sole proprietors or small workplaces

Several people have asked me in recent days to recommend a first-time smartphone. Common threads that you've asked for are:
  1. a work phone for sole proprietors or people who work in a small workplace 
  2. a phone that doesn't rely upon enterprise tools like a BlackBerry Enterprise Server or Microsoft Exchange Server and therefore the ability to provision all features on your own
  3. a focus on the core business functionality of a smartphone, to keep in sync with your desktop or laptop's mail, contacts, calendar, and not games and other consumer functions.
(Photo from Time magazine article, from L to R: iPhone, Motorola/Google Droid, and BlackBerry LINK.)

In this quick and decidedly not exhaustive review--that will be subject to corrections--I'll briefly summarize the four main types of smartphone prevalent in the United States with respect to their ability to deliver core business functionality. But to jump to the conclusion: I'd go for an iPhone on ATT, a Google Android device, specifically the Motorola Droid (or later ones with 2.0 software) if you're on Verizon, OR a BlackBerry, particularly on Verizon, if you need the best voice quality possible and lean towards the "phone" part of smartphone rather than the "smart".

First, the question of carriers. In the United States there are two big players: Verizon and ATT. ATT has had challenges with bandwidth, particularly in some urban areas, as it tries to deal with the load on its system produced by the iPhone. Verizon by all accounts seems to provide better voice quality plus better data throughput and high speed coverage over larger geographies. But the differences between the two carriers in these regards may or may not be noticeable to you or count significantly above other features. And quality in your local area may vary. You should talk to several colleagues who regularly make use of the features you need in the neighborhoods in which you'll primarily be using your phone. A block or two, even in rural areas, can make all the difference between carriers. If you want an iPhone, you're stuck with ATT. If you want a BlackBerry you can choose either. And if you want a Google phone, you used to have to go with TMobile but now you also go to Verizon. Yes, Sprint and TMobile are also out there, plus lesser carriers. There may be value in comparison shopping those carriers.

iPhone. You've of course heard of the tour-de-force that is Apple's iPhone. For flexibility, ease of use, number of mobile applications and sheer beauty it's hard to beat. Surprisingly, as of this writing it probably offers the best integration of PC or Mac to mobile device for the sole proprietor--but Android is right behind and will likely catch up with V2.0. If you use GMail, Outlook, Entourage or Mail, you'll find excellent tools to sync your computer with your iPhone. The two key tools are Google Sync, which gives you GMail, calendar and contact sync or MobileMe, which via a for fee subscription service can sync Calendar and Contacts with Apple iCal and Contacts or with Outlook. E-mail sync can happen via the IMAP protocol to virtually any server and then back up to your computer. Downsides of the iPhone: (1) too much distraction from all those amazing applications and (2) no physical keyboard, so texting while driving is difficult!

Windows Mobile. Microsoft is still struggling with Version 6.5 of its mobile operating system. Hopefully 7.0 will be the charm but that won't be out until late 2010. There is some very nice hardware for Windows Mobile but the operating system by everyone's admission is currently lagging the pack. The irony of Windows Mobile is that with the Google Sync tool you're in as good shape as the iPhone for Over the Air sync (OTA). Microsoft offers no such functionality for their own phones without the use of an Exchange server and you have to rely on their nemesis Google! You can also sync mail via IMAP, something you can't do with a BlackBerry.

BlackBerry. I use a BlackBerry but I have access to an Enterprise Server. The reason I use it is because I want a physical keyboard and I want a device with excellent voice quality. Unfortunately, without access to an Enterprise Server for synchronization, the BlackBerry falls short for the sole proprietor needing good sync capabilities between computer and smartphone.

First, for users of services other than Yahoo Mail, without access to a BlackBerry Enterprise Server, you are unable to sync your e-mail using the BlackBerry native mail application between your computer and your BlackBerry. Your e-mail will come into your BlackBerry but what you do on your BlackBerry stays there and won't sync back to your desktop. (This should change soon, at least with respect to GMail, but we're still waiting.)

Full-on Google users have the best sync options with a BlackBerry. With the Google Sync application you get Google Calendar and Google Contacts OTA sync, same as with the iPhone and Windows Mobile. But for BlackBerry, this product does not offer GMail sync. Again, the native BlackBerry mail application sync is only one-directional, up to the BlackBerry. There IS a decent way of accessing your GMail via a separate GMail for BlackBerry program, but it's not the same "instant push" e-mail that's available on iPhone, Windows Mobile and Android. Highly ironic as BlackBerry invented push e-mail.

If you're using a Macintosh your Addressbook application will sync with Google contacts in Snow Leopard (LINK) and then you can use the Google Sync application to sync the contacts to your BlackBerry. Google calendar sync from iCal to Google Calendar can be also accomplished (instructions LINK) and again you can use the Google Sync application to provide a sync to your BlackBerry.

If you're using Outlook, the best way to get OTA sync is to use the Google Calendar Sync tool on your computer, and the Google Sync tool on your BlackBerry. You're pretty much out of luck with contacts in Outlook except by cable or Bluetooth to your computer. UPDATE: There is an app that will sync your contacts from Outlook to Google, called GoContactSync.) There is at least one application, ThinkPost, that claims to solve the issue of no OTA contacts sync with Outlook but I haven't used it. For full OTA capability including mail, calendar, contacts, tasks, as a solo user you could also sign up for a hosted Exchange account for $20+ per month. Multiple vendors offer this including Sherweb, Intermedia and Mailstreet. Or you could store all your contacts in Google.

There are a crazy number of BlackBerrys, with some only at one carrier or the other, and subtle variations among them--for example, the "Bold2", launching soon from ATT is essentially the Verizon "Tour" with Wifi and a trackpad instead of trackball. But inside, they're all BlackBerrys. Features like Wifi and 3G connection capability may vary, but if you make sure you get a latest model, functionally they're the same.

Android or "Google Phone". Google is giving away its operating system to phone manufacturers (versus Microsoft which sells it). Why? Grab for market share and because Google's whole business model is different from Microsoft's. All indications are that Android is the operating system that longterm will nip most closely on Apple's heels, although BlackBerry has made some decent strides with its application store and has certainly maintained its dominant presence in the enterprise market even while producing big volume increases with consumers. I am less familiar with the Android offering and the subtleties of sync. You may want to get a phone with Version 2.0 of the Android operating system--launching now on the Verizon "Droid"--because that version should have all the sync tools you need to make sure everything stays up to date. Challenge with Android is that by year's end there will be a plethora of phones available (upwards of 20), all with different features and most not sporting V2.0. You really have to make sure that the phone you're buying and the carrier you're buying it from are delivering the features that you need. But if they do have the Version 2.0 sync features, getting your calendar wirelessly delivered shouldn't be a problem; your contacts, if in Outlook, may face the same challenges as a BlackBerry.


Sorry Nokia and Palm, but I don't have direct experience with your products. Nokia has little presence in the United States smartphone market. I do know that its e71 falls short on ease-of-use and setup, although its pretty, svelte and rugged. The new Palm operating system has received praise. It will be coming to Verizon at the end of the year. But the physical product itself feels cheap and Palm market share is losing ground on fears of Android.

(corrections welcome via comments)

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