Clash of the handsets: Smartphones for business

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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.

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

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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