How do I Choose a Smartphone?

February 4, 2009

Let’s face it: just about everyone nowadays has a cell phone, and many of us have work e-mail that we’re expected to check on the fly. What’s the best way to do that? For most people, the answer is a smartphone.

What is a smartphone, you ask? It’s simply a cellular telephone with advanced capabilities that make it more like a tiny personal computer than a telephone. Smartphones typically handle e-mail, calendars, personal notes, and standard cellular phone capabilities. There are several notable giants in the field: Palm (and other Windows Mobile devices), Blackberry, and the recent entrant into the market of cellular technology, the iPhone from Apple. This month, we will focus briefly on some of the work-related aspects where each of these phones may help or hinder you.

E-mail is one of the most prominent forms of communication in this age, and a smartphone that fails to handle it the way you need would be a poor contender to be your new pocket device. Many Windows-based offices use Microsoft’s Exchange Server software to handle their mail, and this also handles things like sharing calendars and maintaining contact lists.

In this respect, Palm and Windows Mobile devices have always been the leader. Windows Mobile is the operating system designed by Microsoft for mobile devices that integrates with Outlook and your other MS Office applications. It supports Exchange Server (which many people have at their offices, handling their e-mail, whether they are aware of it or not), as well as all other standards for e-mail handling. Because they can synchronize with Exchange directly, Windows Mobile devices can also synchronize your contacts and calendar with an Exchange account.

Blackberries fall behind here, because they do not support Exchange without the assistance of Blackberry Enterprise Server, which is a piece of software that is prohibitively expensive for most small- to mid-size companies. Instead, Blackberries use only POP3 and IMAP, services that can carry out most of the standard functionality expected of e-mail. They can access Exchange Servers that are configured properly, but require some additional steps from your IT professionals, and are not quite as seamless. Blackberry devices can synchronize with your contacts and calendar, but require a direct (USB) connection to your computer in order to do so. They will only synchronize while connected, so any changes will not show up in both places until they sync.

The iPhone originally did not have any support for Exchange Server mail handling, but this support was introduced at the same time that the iPhone 3G hit the market this past year. Now, the iPhone has direct Exchange Server support, and can integrate your mail, contacts, and calendar all with your work account. The iPhone’s interactions with Exchange now function in a very similar way to Windows Mobile devices, in that it will wirelessly synchronize your mail, contacts, and calendar with your normal Outlook account at work.

All three types of smartphone are viable, but in an Exchange setting, the Windows Mobile device and iPhones tend to pull ahead because of their ease of use, as you can configure them and never have to synchronize them again. Blackberries are more designed for small business professionals who work out of an independent office, and do not have something like Exchange managing their mail, contacts, and calendars all together.

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