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iPhone vs. Blackberry as a business tool

When the 3G iPhone was announced, I was enthusiastic but skeptical.  I was disappointed by the first iPhone for many reasons, not the least of which was the poor data speed due to AT&T’s EDGE network limitations.  Once the lines got shorter, I finally picked one up and used it instead of my Blackberry 8830.  After two weeks I was thoroughly dissatisfied with the iPhone and returned it. Since we’ve had so many questions about the 3G iPhone, I thought I should share my reasons for sticking with my Blackberry.

Let me start by stating this information is based on my opinion, which is obviously biased towards what I personally find important.  I wanted to love the iPhone. After all, I’m a Mac guy and have been for 20 years.  I was enticed by the commercial’s promise of easy, crisp web access, and the idea of having my phone, music, and pictures of my daughter all in one, easy-to-use device.  The iPhone definitely has all of that.  But in the final analysis, the Blackberry is a better business tool.

The choice of any PDA or SmartPhone goes beyond its technical capabilities and is ultimately based on what each individual user finds important.  I never thought much about what I considered to be critical features of my Blackberry until I didn’t have them any more.

The feature set of a Blackberry and an iPhone are actually pretty similar.  It’s the subtleties of implementation that will impress you or annoy you.  To that end, I have created a list of features I consider to be important, and when people ask “Should I buy an iPhone, a Blackberry, or something else?” I offer this list and tell them to rank it in order of importance.  (Feel free to read this article in the same manner.)

In order of importance (to me):

  • 1) Functionality as a phone
  • 2) Ability to sync with my Mac (contacts, calendar, and photos)
  • 3) Functionality of e-mail
  • 4) Ability to provide a tethered Internet connection
  • 5) Ability to browse the web

The debate of service providers does play into this a little.  I have been using a cell phone in the Los Angeles area since 1997, and have been with Sprint for the last 2 years.  For our needs, and where we travel in Southern California, Sprint has by far the best coverage.  I am sure someone is reading this right now thinking I am an idiot because they had nothing but issues with Sprint and love their current carrier.  So goes the choice of a cell carrier; it’s based on a least of evils.  That being said, during the two weeks I used the iPhone, I also carried my Blackberry.  What I found was that I had better reception at home (which is great), but worse reception (notice I didn’t say bad) when visiting our clients.  Currently, we have only one client whose location has poor reception with Sprint.  During the two weeks I used the iPhone, that number jumped to over a dozen.  Your mileage may vary.

How the iPhone functions as a phone is a different matter.  I have about 20 people I call several times a week including employees, clients, and colleagues.  Calling these contacts takes three steps on an iPhone and only one on a Blackberry.  Let me explain: I added these people as “Favorites” in my iPhone and set it to take me to my Favorites list when I double-clicked the home button.  Double-click, scroll the list of Favorites (I had too many to fit on the screen at one time) to the name of my choosing, and tap to call them. Sounds great and easy to use.  Now try it with one hand or while driving.  Not so easy.

On my Blackberry, I assigned these same 20 people to “Speed Dials”.  All this entails is pressing and holding a letter on the keyboard for about two seconds and it will dial the number.  Now for the best part: the 8830 has voicedialing built in and I have found the text-to-speech recognition to be about 95% accurate.  I have come across a few glitches, but have quickly learned to deal with them.  For example, it will sometimes pronounce a hard “C” as an “S”.  Even with its minor quirks, I have found it to be invaluable.

Searching for names in the Contact list is much better in the new 2.x iPhone software (which is available for the original iPhone too), but it’s still not perfect.  If I wanted to call “Charles” by searching for his name, it takes eight steps, but on a Blackberry, it only takes four.

iPhone step-by-step…

  • (1) Unlock the screen
  • (2) Tap the Phone icon
  • (3) Tap the Contacts button
  • (4) Scroll the list of contacts back to the top of the list so I can access the Search bar (The list stays at the last location between uses, so if the last name I called was “Frank”, the list would be at “F”)
  • (5) Tap into the Search field to access the keyboard
  • (6) Start spelling the name
  • (7) Tap the correct “Charles” (I have 7 in my address book)
  • (8) Tap the desired number

(There are some 3rd party apps you can install on the iPhone to tweak or adjust this process, but we’re just looking at the device as it is out of the box.)

Here is that same process on my Blackberry:

  • (1) Unlock the screen
  • (2) Start spelling the name
  • (3) Scroll to the correct “Charles”
  • (4) Click the desired number

Again, the Blackberry requires half the number of steps.  This may not seem like a big deal if you make ten or fewer calls a day, but on average, I make thirty per day.  That’s a lot of extra effort.  And when you consider the new hands-free law in California, the built-in voice dialing is much faster and safer.

About 2 years ago, less than 10% of our clients wanted or needed to get e-mail on their PDA or SmartPhone.  Now more than 50% want or need it.  There are many subtle differences in how it’s handled on various devices and this becomes quite evident when comparing the iPhone and Blackberry.

When you initially sync your iPhone with your Mac, you will be asked if you want to sync e-mail accounts.  This won’t actually move your e-mail messages, but rather it will replicate the account settings on your iPhone, and I must say it’s a nice touch.  On a Blackberry, it’s easiest to add the accounts via the Blackberry web site, but they can also be added via the device itself.

In a nutshell, the limitations I found on the iPhone were being able to view only the last 200 messages on my phone without manually choosing to download more, the complete lack of a search function within the e-mail client, the frustrating process needed to switch back and forth among the multiple e-mail accounts, and having only a single signature for use across all e-mail accounts.

I use IMAP e-mail so that the state of my e-mail is equal on my laptop, via webmail, and on my Blackberry.  I think it’s important to state here that I receive about 50 messages per day in my primary e-mail account (about 20 more per day combined in the other accounts), and reply to 10 or more a day from my Blackberry.  On an iPhone and on a Blackberry, the storage capacity is far less than a typical user’s inbox and each device handles the situation differently.  An iPhone lets you choose how many messages to make available to you by letting you select the latest 25, 50, 75, 100 or 200 messages.  If you need more, simply scroll to the bottom of your inbox and click the link to show more messages, and wait while it downloads them approximately 50 at a time.  Based on this, my iPhone was able to preserve about four days worth of e-mail in my inbox at any given time.

On a Blackberry you don’t set how many messages to keep, but rather for how many days they are kept, the minimum of which is 15 days.  If you then set the “Auto More” option, it will download them in the background automatically as you scroll down your inbox.  A huge plus on the Blackberry is the Search feature.  If you want to find that message from Joe a few days ago, you can simply tap the menu key, choose Search, and then search for “Joe” as recipient or sender, and a few seconds later every message sent to or from Joe is made available. You still cannot search your e-mail on an iPhone.  It is very aggravating to scroll through 300+ e-mails on my iPhone when looking for an e-mail received a week earlier. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.

I also found the iPhone is not equipped very well for handling multiple accounts.  The e-mail accounts, and subsequently the folders and the contents of those folders, are organized much like the column view in the Finder on a Mac.  In order to change from the inbox of one account to another entails the following four steps:

  • (1) From the Inbox of account “A”, tap the “Mailboxes”  link to see the folders for this account
  • (2) Tap the “Accounts” link to see the list of the accounts
  • (3) Tap account “B” to see its folders
  • (4) Tap the Inbox

I have to check my e-mail on all three of my accounts multiple times daily. Imagine doing the above process fifteen times a day.  It was truly frustrating.  On a Blackberry, you can either view all accounts independently, or you can set a preference to merge them all into one inbox so you can access all of your e-mails at once. This is far easier and faster than what the iPhone offers. With regard to composing e-mail, both phones allow you to change the “From” address.  However, on an iPhone, all e-mail accounts must share the same signature, whereas on a Blackberry, each account can have its own unique signature.

iPhone integrates with iTunes and you configure and control the syncing through a series of menus in that program.  Like most Apple technology, it’s very easy to use and allows you to choose anything or everything from Address Book, iCal, iPhoto and iTunes to be synced.

Blackberries don’t natively sync with Macs, but there are two options.  Freely available to any Blackberry owner is the PocketMac Blackberry Edition or, as a separate purchase, Missing Sync for Blackberry.  There are a few subtle differences between them that won’t be covered here, but I will say that we use and love Missing Sync.  It allows easy syncing to Address Book, iCal, iPhoto, and iTunes, among other things.  While there is an additional expense for the sync software, the resulting functionality between the iPhone and Blackberry is virtually identical.  (It should be noted the iPhone has a bigger screen with better resolution for viewing pictures, but I didn’t find that a compelling enough reason to prefer it over the Blackberry.)

A few times a week we are in a position where we need an alternate Internet connection.  This may be because there are simply too many people using the WiFi at the hotel, Internet café, or conference we are visiting.  With our Blackberries, we can connect via Bluetooth to the phone and then piggy back on its Internet connection, resulting in speeds roughly equal to that of consumer DSL.  As of the writing of this article, this is still not supported on an iPhone and is also against the AT&T terms of use.

This is absolutely one of the biggest strengths of the iPhone.  I was really happy with how well it drew HTML pages from every website I tested.  Zooming the pages to be able to read the text and view images was actually fun.  While you certainly can browse the web on a Blackberry, the screen is smaller, and because it is trying to redraw the website to fit the format of the square screen, it simply takes longer.  The only exception with the strength in web browsing on the iPhone is that Flash is still not available, so if you hit a website that requires Flash, you are out of luck.

I have had this debate with many of my colleagues and clients, and acknowledge that my perspective is biased.  I would never say the iPhone is a bad business tool, but rather that the Blackberry is a better one for people who are looking for a really good phone with strong e-mail functionality.  Had I gone from enduring a two-year battle with a Treo SmartPhone directly to an iPhone (like many of my colleagues), I probably would have been far happier with the iPhone.  I guess the Blackberry has me spoiled.

When you are trying to choose which phone or PDA to purchase, think about what’s important to you.  How do you plan to us the device?  If you travel often, is having one device for your music, photos, and phone a big plus?  Or if, like me, you spend a lot of time on the road, would nearly perfect voice dialing and very powerful mobile e-mail make your life easier?  Don’t just ask people if they like their phone or PDA, ask them why.  It may make all the difference in your next purchase.

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