The Best Business Smartphone Available (Today)

apple-iphone-3g

Chances are, if you are reading this blog, then you have some affinity to technology and that you’re in the business of technology (whether directly, or using technology to do your job – and I don’t mean having a computer on your desk at work). This is a pretty tech-savvy crowd around these parts so I’m guessing that most of you own a smartphone of some sort. Many have iPhones. Perhaps as many have BlackBerrys. A few of you are sad, sad people who own Treos.

A swath of new smartphones have just hit the market and, though I don’t claim to be a gadget or phone blogger (Really, you need to go read Boy Genius and Gizmodo for a far more geeky and informative analysis of all the various devices that hit the market), I do know that I’m a businessman and entrepreneur. I know that, from my perspective, there are key principles and requirements in any phone.

In order for a businessperson or entrepreneur to invest in a phone (again, from my perspective), there needs to be a few key things.

  1. Email – Clearly the killer app forever now, any phone must support email. As part of this, there needs to be a wireless sync/push feature.
  2. Productivity – Any smartphone needs to be able to open files from major vendors – Word, Excel, PDFs, Images, etc.
  3. Competent mobile browser – As mobile professionals, we need the web more than the average home user. We need access to sites that are not inherently broken because they appear on the mobile device.
  4. Reliable network – This is not a plug for Verizon because several U.S. and international carriers can be considered “reliable”. Whatever the network that the phone is on, it needs to be reliable.
  5. Third Party Applications – How easy is it to add apps that you need to your phone? Are there quality apps available or not?
  6. Copy and Paste – One of those “Duh” features that is essential.

You may notice some notable omissions from this list that emphasize the angle of business utility. For instance, cameras, WiFi and GPS are all nice but unnecessary for business. Touch screens, such as the one that comes with the iPhone or BlackBerry Storm are also nice additions, but not required for business utility.

In my mind, there are three phones on the market that are worth considering for business use. I have my preference on which one is best, but businesses all have to decide what their needs are and, if they are practical, choose among one of these three devices.

Apple iPhone 3G S

apple-iphone-3gThe third generation iPhone just hit the market on June 19th. It boasts all of the features of the iPhone 3G plus a quicker OS and a better camera. Most of the new features of the iPhone are available via an OS 3.0 upgrade available for free for older iPhone owners. With the new iPhone, you can tether your iPhone for broadband access on your laptop (except AT&T customers in the US), and an all important Remote Wipe capability that will allow network administrators to remove sensitive data in case the phone is lost or stolen. Cost: $199 with new two year contract from AT&T (US)

Pros

  • Huge number of third party apps including many business apps via the iTunes App Store
  • Remote Wipe
  • Intuitive touch screen
  • WiFi or 3G connectivity

Cons

  • AT&T as the carrier in the United States has been hugely unreliable delivering even basic services like voice mail
  • Exorbitant data plan fees
  • Large glass screen lends itself to breakage
  • Insecure Microsoft Exchange integration
  • Inability to multi-task applications

Palm Pre

palm-prePalm used to be the dominant manufacturer of handheld devices. With the rising popularity of BlackBerrys and iPhones, Palm has slipped tremendously. They recently, however, came to market with a very sleek phone that has an open development structure with their WebOS. Unlike the iPhone, the Pre does a very good job of multitasking and with it’s touch screen, switching between open applications is a smooth process. Also unlike the iPhone, the Pre provides a physical keyboard that, while somewhat awkward to use, should appease users who like the tactile feel of actual keys. Cost: $199 with new two year contract from Sprint.

Pros

  • Small form factor
  • Sprint has a very good data network
  • Bright HVGA screen (touch screen)
  • Email and integration with Microsoft Exchange
  • WiFi or 3G connectivity
  • Classic Konami Nintendo game Contra code to unlock developer mode. Geek Props.

Cons

  • Screen is much smaller than the iPhone
  • Awkward slide out keyboard with tiny keys makes typing difficult
  • Third party application availability is limited at this time
  • No Remote Wipe, a security requirement that might prevent large scale adoption in enterprise

BlackBerry Tour 9630

blackberry-tour-96301For BlackBerry afficionados, the new BlackBerry Tour (available for both Sprint and Verizon Wireless) is a beautiful phone. It has the brilliant screen (if slightly smaller version) as the BlackBerry Bold from AT&T and the form factor and keyboard styling of the new BlackBerry Curve 8350i (from Sprint). It has all the Enterprise integration that BlackBerry has been known for including remote wipe and Exchange integration (via Blackberry Enterprise Server for Exchange). Cost: $199 with new two year contract on Sprint or Verizon Wireless

Pros

  • Familiar usability for BlackBerry users
  • OS 4.7, which includes a usable browser (departure from the norm)
  • Multi-tasking applications

Cons

  • No touch screen
  • Awkward position of MicroUSB slot makes it difficult for right handed users to use the device while it is plugged in
  • Still no competent native Mac support, though this is supposedly coming soon.

At the end of the day, each organization needs to determine what is best for them. iPhones are fantastic devices for custom applications and is being used in the military, enterprise and government alike. They are not the most secure devices though and, for now, require AT&T in the U.S. The Palm Pre offers a significant value for businesses, but lacks Enterprise features such as remote wipe. It is also the first generation model of this phone. The BlackBerry is the most utilitarian phone and remains popular for businesses but its lack of a touch screen, the likes of which Apple has made us expect and long for, makes it “meh” for some users.

Whatever works for you.

The iPhone still is not a Business Phone

Since the launch of the original iPhone almost two years ago, it has been the position of this journalist, that the iPhone is not equipped, nor designed to be a business class phone. Although Apple has done a lot to address the concerns raised by many around the time of the original launch, such as third party apps and 3G speed, there are still inherent (and potentially unsolvable) problems with the phone.

Without a doubt, the iPhone is the sexiest phone on the market. Even with Research in Motion’s Blackberry Storm launch and a variety of other touch screen devices from other manufacturers, nothing meets, much less exceeds, the beauty and elegance of an iPhone. With it’s intuitive scrolling interface, the presence of a real web browser and hours of entertainment value via games from the app store, iPod capability and social networking capability, a la Livingston Communication’s Mobile Manifesto, there is no doubt that the iPhone is the device of choice for the long tail of consumers.

However, the finger typing (as opposed to tactile QWERTY keyboard of other devices, such as Blackberrys) poses a significant architectural barrier to business adoption. From a business standpoint, a mobile device is meant for utility. Email, productivity, and collaboration. That’s what we in business need from our phones, no? We need to be able to ensure connectivity to mission critical offices, and projects.

In Washington, we are a working class. We may not be the working class, as bandied around in political campaigns, but we are a town driven by long hours, massive public-interest footprints and a very east-coast “on the go” mentality. In Washington, Verizon Wireless rules the roost because of solid coverage and underground Metro coverage (granted, other carriers will have expanded coverage by the end of the year and full access by 2012).

During the Inauguration, while those in proximity to me (on the National Mall) lost coverage for all or a portion of the ceremony while using the Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile networks, Verizon Wireless troopered on without so much as a hiccup.

So, let’s review the iPhone. The iPhone is locked into the AT&T network (for now). Therefore, large collections of iPhones all throttle the same towers as opposed to dispersion of traffic across a multitude of networks. FAIL.

The iPhone presents significant usability and utility challenges to the “working” American due to the finger touch system. Additionally, the lack of viable Exchange integration (sorry, the iPhone OS 2.0 upgrade providing ActiveSync is junk), and lack of Group Policy mechanisms that prevent IT Administrators from effectively tying into a Enterprise Active Directory structure and enforcing group policy and security across an infrastructure in the same way they can for Windows Mobile or Blackberry devices, will continue to prevent the iPhone from seeing widespread adoption in enterprise environments.

Cloud Computing Does Not Spell the End for Common Sense I.T. Management

Sometimes I think I might be the only one who retains commons sense. Really. At least in the area of I.T. Management. Though we had our share of growing pains at b5media, the knowledge gained from working in an enterprise environment at Northrop Grumman was only accentuated by my tenure as the Director of Technology at b5media.

Unfortunately, some common best-use practices in developing infrastructure are often put aside by those with shiny object syndrome surrounding “cloud computing“.

Let me explain.

You may have noticed a severe hampering of many internet services over the weekend. The culprit was a rare, but yet heavy-duty outage of Amazon S3 (Simple Storage Service) cloud storage. S3 is used by many companies including Twitter, WordPress.com, FriendFeed, and SmugMug to name a few. Even more individuals are using S3 for online data backup or for small projects requiring always-on virtual disk space. Startups often use S3 due to the “always on” storage, defacto CDN and the inexpensive nature of the service… it really is cheap!

And that’s good. I’m a fan of using the cheapest, most reliable service for anything. Whatever gets you to the next level quickest and with as little output of dollars is good in my book, for the same reason I’m a fan of prototyping ideas in Ruby on Rails (but to be clear, after the prototype, build on something more reliable and capable of handling multi-threaded processes, kthxbai.)

However, sound I.T. management practice says that there should never be a single point of failure. Ever. Take a step back and map out the infrastructure. If you see anyplace where there’s only one of those connecting lines between major resource A and major resource B – start looking there for bottlenecks and potential company-sinking aggravation.

Thus was the case for many companies using S3. Depending on the use of S3, and if the companies had failover to other caches, some companies were affected more than others. Twitter for instance, uses S3 for avatar storage but had no other “cold cache” for that data rendering a service without user images – bad, but not deathly.

SmugMug shrugged the whole thing off (which is a far cry from the disastrous admission that “hot cache” was used very little when Amazon went down back in February), which I thought was a bit odd. Their entire company revolves around hosted photos on Amazon S3 and they simply shrugged off an 8 hour outage as “ok because everyone goes down once in awhile”. Yeah, and occasionally people get mugged in dark city streets, but as long as it’s not me it’s okay! Maybe it was the fact that the outage occurred on a Sunday. Who knows? To me, this sort of outage rages as a 9.5/10 on the critical scale. Their entire business is wrapped up in S3 storage with no failover. For perspective, one 8 hour outage in July constitutes 98.9% uptime – a far cry from five 9′s (99.999%) which is minimal mitigation of risk in enterprise, mission-critical services.

WordPress.com, as always, comes through as a shining example of a company who economically benefits from the use of S3 as a cold cache and not primary access or “warm cache”.

Let me stop and provide some definition. Warm (or hot) cache is always preferable to cold cache. It is data that has been loaded into memory or a more reasonably accessible location – but typically memory. Cold cache is a file based storage of cached data. It is less frequently accessed because access only occurs if warm cache data has expired or doesn’t exist.

WordPress.com has multiple levels of caching because they are smart and understand the basic premise of eliminating single point of failure. Image data is primarily accessed over their server cluster via a CDN, however S3 is used as a cold cache. With the collapse of S3 over the weekend, WordPress.com, from my checking, remained unaffected.

This is the basic principle of I.T. enterprise computing that is lost on so much of the “web world”. If companies have built and scaled (particularly if they have scaled!) and rely on S3 with no failover, shame on them. Does it give Amazon a black eye? Absolutely. however, at the end of the day SmugMug, WordPress.com, Friendfeed, Twitter and all the other companies utilizing S3 answer to their customers and do not have the luxury of pointing the finger at Amazon. If their business is negatively affected, they have no one to blame but themselves. The companies who understood this planned accordingly and were not negatively affected by the S3 outage. Those who weren’t were left, well, holding the bag.

Added: GNIP gets it, and they are new to the game. Even startups have no excuse.