The iPhone and its Rivals: Lots of Smartphone Choices, More to Come

by Reads (15,498)

With a new mobile OS officially announced, and the 4G device apparently revealed, Apple’s iPhone never stops showing up in headlines this spring. Meanwhile, Microsoft, RIM, and other smartphone players are making their own big news. While the advent of so many new products is exciting, users face increasingly tough choices, especially if they‘re in any hurry to buy new phones, and if they plan to use the gadgets for business purposes at all.

Just a few years ago, most business users didn’t need to make any decisions whatsoever about work-related mobile phones. “There are still lots of IT-driven phone deployments out there, but more and more these days, people are bringing in their personal phones to work and saying, ‘Hook me up,'” noted Carrie MacGillivray, program manager, Wireless and Mobility, at analyst firm IDC.

Some businesses, such as Toshiba America Medical Systems (TAMS), are taking both approaches. The 500 customer engineers (CEs) who give tech support to customers’ diagnostic imaging systems get BlackBerry Bold 9000 smartphones set up for mobile access to a dispatch center, a customer relationship management (CRM) system, and an internal email system, said David Croteau, InTouch manager at TAMS.

TAMS’ salespeople, on the other hand, can use iPhones, BlackBerries, or whatever other phones they like, but their mobile access to company information is limited to email — and the email is deliverable to them only as Webmail, rather than directly to their devices.

But whether, like Croteau, you handle acquisitions around hundreds of smartphones, or whether you’re just looking to buy a single phone, one simple question can help you cut to the chase.

“Ask yourself, ‘What do I want this phone to do?” advises Mark Charvala, associate product developer at Verizon Wireless.

Apple iPhone 4GEnter the iPhone 4G
Right now, the proverbially ever shifting tides of the mobile phone market are particularly muddied with uncertainty. In the latest bolt from the blue, the gadget blog Gizmodo claims to have obtained a partially working prototype of the iPhone 4G, a next generation model long rumored about but still not confirmed by Apple.

It’s not clear yet exactly whether Apple plans to turn the prototype into a real product, or, if so, when the 4G will make it out the door.

But there’s little doubt that the gadget originated at Apple. Photos on the Internet show a larger battery and a higher-resolution display than those of the existing 3G and 3GS phones, along with a flat-back design, a MicroSIM slot, and front- and back-facing cameras. Presumably, the front-facing camera will be for video conferencing.

Questions still loom on the Microsoft side, too, although not as largely. Some Microsoft reps seem to be confusing matters a bit by using the catch-all phrase “Windows phones” to refer to both its own Kin phones, unveiled in April, and future Windows Phone 7 gear from hardware partners such as Samsung, Dell, HTC, Toshiba, and HP.

Microsoft’s Dual OS Strategy
In fact, unlike the upcoming phones from Microsoft’s partners, Microsoft’s Kin phones will NOT run Windows Phone 7. Nor will the Kin phones be able to run applications written for Phone 7. The Kins will have a completely different user interface from the other phones. However, Microsoft’s Kins will use some of the core system software from Windows Phone 7.

Microsoft has announced that the Kin phones will be released this spring, with exclusive availability from Verizon. In contrast, the partners’ Windows Phone 7 models are expected this fall, although exact release dates haven’t yet been made known. While the Kin phones are well characterized as entry-level devices, the Phone 7 devices due out this year will offer more advanced capabilities.

On the other hand, Microsoft has helped to clarify the picture by releasing some hardware specs for Windows Phone 7 models, including stipulations that all Windows Phone 7 devices must provide WVGA capacitive touchscreens and at least 8 GB of storage.

Microsoft and its smartphone allies have also provided sneak peeks at some forthcoming models. For example, Samsung’s Omnia 3 will be tablet-shaped with chrome buttons.

For its part, Dell looks to be readying the Lightning, a Windows Phone 7 slider model which will feature a small, portrait-oriented keyboard below its 4.1-inch, WVGA screen, according to a description that has leaked from Dell.

When the hardware and the software is ready, the Windows Phone 7 gadgets from Microsoft’s partners will run across wireless networks from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, Vodafone, Orange, and many other carriers.


Meanwhile, your choices today obviously revolve around what’s already available. Three iPhone alternatives particularly popular at the moment include HTC’s Windows Mobile 6.5-enabled HD2; RIM’s BlackBerry Bold 9700; and the Android-based Motorola Droid.

HTC HD2 for T-Mobile USAHTC HD2
What’s wrong with combining business with a bit of pleasure, especially if you’re only buying a phone for yourself? HTC’s HD2 comes with an ultra fast Qualcomm Snapdragon 1 GHz processor providing smooth support bundled apps that include Blockbuster on Demand for downloading movies to the phone, plus MobiTV live television.

For viewing multimedia entertainment, Excel spreadsheets, or just about anything else, the HD2 sports a 4.3-inch WVGA capacitive touchscreen, the biggest screen to grace a Windows Mobile phone yet.

The HD2’s Touchscreen is noticeably larger than the screen on the Apple 3G. We don’t know yet if the 4G’s screen will be larger than the 3G’s, so it isn’t possible to say how the HD2 will stack up there.

The HTC phone’s display isn’t as bright, though, as the AMOLED screens featured on phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S.

On top of Windows Mobile 6.5, HTC has layered its own custom user interface, a colorful and tiled intuitive UI known as Sense. There’s a down side to this, though. Microsoft won’t be allowing HTC or other vendors to use their own UIs on upcoming Windows Phone 7 devices, according to Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft.

Like the existing iPhone 3G and 3GS, the HD2 isn’t equipped with a physical keyboard. Although not always needed by talented thumbers, a physical keyboard can come in very handy for anyone else, especially in data intensive tasks such as accounting, texting and instant messaging (IMing), pointed out IDC’s MacGillivray, in an interview.

Motorola DroidMotorola Droid
The Motorola Droid, on the other hand, does have a physical keyboard. Upon the Droid’s launch last fall, Motorola claimed that the Android device is the thinnest phone with a QWERTY keyboard ever made. Measuring 0.5-inch thick, the Droid also comes with a large, 3.7-inch display. Its slideout keyboard is big, too, although some find the spacing between keys a bit cramped.

In an update to Android OS 2.1 this spring, the Droid gained capabilities voice recognition, a feature already available in Google’s Android-enabled Nexus One, for example.

The Droid is also outfitted with fun but yet eminently practical Google Maps-enabled GPS turn-by-turn voice navigation. Sure, you can use the voice navigation to help guide the family to a theme park during a summer vacation trip, but it’s equally useful if you get lost on your way to a business meeting.

You can get similar navigation help on the iPhone, but you have to obtain it through a third-party app from MaqQuest which was quite long in making it to Apple’s App Store.

BlackBerry Bold 9700BlackBerry Bold2
RIM’s Bold 9700, a successor to the original Bold 9000, comes with a scaled down keyboard to fit the Bold2’s thinner, smaller, and sleeker form factor. Yet the usability of the keyboard isn’t really affected.

RIM has also trimmed the size of the LCD screen. But when packed on to the smaller display at the same 480 x 360 resolution, the color images seem richer and deeper.

Also in the second generation Bold, RIM has replaced the original Bold’s notoriously tricky trackball with a more reliable and responsive trackpad.

In addition, the Bold2 comes with a 3.15 megapixel camera with auto-focus and LED flash. This is slightly more capable than the iPhone 3GS’s 3 MPx camera with auto-focus, and much more capable than the 2 MPx cameras of the original Bold and iPhone 3G. The 3GS’s camera, though, also does video recording.

But the Bold2’s camera doesn’t measure up to the Droid’s 5 MPx camera with dual LED flash. In turn, the Droid’s camera lags behind the 8 MPx cameras already starting to emerge on some other phones.

Not everyone wants to move to the Bold2, though. When TAMS first launched it smartphone deployment about three years back, Croteau chose RIM largely because BlackBerry phones offered about the best battery life available at the time. Other factors included the phones’ durability and ruggedness, along with the remote management and security provided by server-based BlackBerry Enterprise Manager (BEM) software.

Initially, TAMS’ customer engineers used RIM’s earlier 8700c, 8800, and 7290 devices to access server software that included BEM, Antenna Softwares AMP Service field service solution, and Amdocs’ Clarify CRM Croteau then upgraded the CEs to the original Bold 9000 series.

TAMS is currently migrating its CRM functionality from Clarify to an Oracle systems. But Croteau said he sees no real need right now to swap out the Bold 9000 smartphones to Bold 2s or any other breed of phone. He’s still happy with the battery life of the original Bold.

The Bold2 offers 6 hours of talk time and up to 408 hours of standby time, in contrast to 4.5 hours and 324 hours for the original Bold, although some users have complained over the Internet of battery life problems with the 9000.

RIM’s numbers are in the same general ballpark as the iPhone 3G/3GS: up to 5 hours of talk time or Internet use on 3G, and up to 300 hours of standby.

But unlike BlackBerries and most other smartphones, iPhones don’t yet come with removable batteries. If the recently discovered mystery prototype from Apple does turn into a real 4G, users will undoubtedly be interested in seeing how Apple goes about improving the batteries.

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