Clash of the handsets: Smartphones for business

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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.

This story, "Clash of the handsets: Smartphones for business" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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