Art’s Wireless Tour – Fall 2008

About 18 months ago, I wrote a long post about mobile phones. It was probably one of the most popular posts to this blog. I had spent the entire summer of 2007 trying 5 different smartphones and 3 different wireless carriers. And, at the end of the post I promised to make a long term commitment to the Motorola Q9. I felt that it was by far the best smartphone I could find at the time. Those of you, who know me well, know that I’m just not destined to be with one phone forever. So, last summer, I started getting antsy to try something else.

I started “looking around,” just to see what was out there. I had sworn off AT&T because their service in New England is horrible, but since Verizon offers new phones every ice age and the iPhone 3G had just come out, I couldn’t wait any longer. So, this time, I got my wife involved. She got an iPhone 3G. I didn’t take the plunge, because Bullhorn can’t sync with the iPhone in real-time yet. Instead, I bought an unlocked Treo Pro. AT&T let’s you use any device that takes a SIM card, so even though they don’t carry the phone, I was able to use it. Note to Verizon: this is a major competitive advantage for AT&T.

I’ll start with the Palm Treo Pro, because it’s currently the best option for Bullhorn users. It’s ironic that Palm, the company that invented the concept of the smartphone with the Treo 600, has fallen so far behind technologically. While the Treo Pro is not a category defining device, it is a very competently executed smartphone and has all the current features one should expect from a modern smartphone: 3G, WIFI, touch-screen, physical QWERTY, and the decent Windows Mobile 6.1. It’s a very attractive phone with a solid, quality feel. The form factor is dramatically smaller than previous Treo’s. It sounds good and the battery life is much better that the Treo 680 (you can go a full day with heavy usage). If you’re using the Motorola Q9, this is a massive step up.

After having used this phone exclusively for 2 months, I won’t go back. Sorry, Motorola, I know I said that I was back for good. What can I say? At the moment the Treo Pro is offered unlocked only. This means the cell providers aren’t yet subsidizing the purchase price with a 1 or 2 year contract. So, the phone is not cheap. Amazon has it listed for $495. The rumors are that Verizon will be picking up the Treo Pro soon. If you absolutely can’t deal with spending $500 for a phone, even though it’s unlocked, and can’t wait, Sprint carries the nearly identical Treo 800w for $249.

The next phone I tried is the Blackberry Storm. This is RIM and Verizon’s answer to the Apple and AT&T’s iPhone. This phone has had tremendous hype. And, since Bullhorn is in the process of upgrading its Blackberry support, I had to try it. Unfortunately, the Storm doesn’t live up to the hype. The moment you pick it up, it becomes crystal clear that it’s an iPhone wannabe – a knockoff. The best analogy I can come up with is that if the iPhone was a great rock band, the Storm would be a cover band. The biggest problem with the Storm is that the touch screen is clumsy. And, the whole screen is one big button that’s somewhat hard to press. Where the iPhone requires only slight touches to get things done, the Storm demands a deliberate push. Imagine the Staples “Easy Button.” Now, use it to type an email. It sort of seems gimmicky or maybe just different to be different.

The Storm’s screen is very clear and bright – perhaps its best feature. The browser is only OK. It’s better than any thing RIM has done in the past, but the inaccuracy of the touch-screen makes navigation difficult at times. Lastly, this phone is slow and frequently unresponsive, which combines with the difficulty around typing to insure insanity if you need to write more than a sentence in an email response. The interesting thing about the Storm is that it puts RIM in the position of chasing Apple. Just a few months ago, it was the other way around. And, now, RIM is behind. I wouldn’t count them out of the touch-screen smartphone game. For all its faults, the Storm shows a lot of promise. It’s not easy for a big company with a huge install base to go in a new direction. If they stick to it and fix the issues in version two, this device could become a big player in the market as well.

For all those die-hard Blackberry fans, I’d recommend the Blackberry Bold. The Bold is a solid device. It’s screen is very sharp and it has all the typical features that people love about Blackberry’s. The keyboard is very easy to use, the wheel is decent for navigation and the email functionality is great. The browser is weak compared to others on the market, but it’s functional. The downside of the Bold is that the screen is not very large and it lacks touch-screen functionality. After using the large screens of the Treo Pro and iPhone, the Bold’s screen feels very small. And, I found myself frustrated that it didn’t have a touch-screen. This is an issue for RIM. The market demands smartphones with big screens that you can touch. They need to find a way to bridge the gap between the Bold and the Storm.

Now that I’ve compared every thing else to the Apple iPhone 3G, it’s probably clear to every one that I’ve become a fan. The iPhone is a very powerful device. The design is incredibly well thought out and the user interface is very intuitive. The core functions: email, browser, calendar, contacts, phone and photo work near-flawlessly and there’s a cool new application in the App Store every day or so. Apple has set a pretty high bar. The downside about the iPhone is that Apple, like RIM, wants to own the entire platform, the network, the phone, the OS and the applications on the phone. The fact that Apple has an approval process for applications is less about ensuring quality than it is a barrier to entry for other businesses that might develop on their platform.

Remember that the iPhone did not support Microsoft Exchange until the second rev of the phone was released. I can’t see the wisdom in releasing a smartphone without support for Exchange. Worse, the iPhone doesn’t support SYNCML, the standard XML protocol for syncing calendar and contact data between devices. Developers have written applications for the iPhone to support SYNCML but for some unknown reason they don’t pass Apple’s approval process. I’m a big fan of the phone. But, Apple is not an open company, supporting open standards, and in the end no matter how good the technology is, closed systems are bad for business. This doesn’t mean Bullhorn isn’t building applications for the iPhone – we are and you’ll see them in 2009. With some help from Apple, you would’ve seen them in 2008.

Lastly, I have been watching the Google Android experiment from the sidelines. I poked around on a G1, offered by T-Mobile. I don’t think the phone is ready for the business user yet. But, technologically it’s a very capable OS and because it’s an open source platform, I expect many handset manufacturers to pick it up. And, if it starts to gain traction, it will attract developers in droves. I suspect it will be a year or more before we see what Android can really do. For the time being, Windows Mobile devices are the best choice for Bullhorn customers. The good news is that there are some excellent Windows Mobile phones available. Stay tuned.

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