Clash of the handsets: Seven smartphones for business

Apple iPhone, Android G1, AT&T Fuze, HTC Touch Diamond, and three flavors of BlackBerry compete for one pocket. Which should you choose?

Enterprises and professionals looking to purchase new mobile devices can make choices, as consumers do, based on the first couple of weeks of positive hype and buzz. But unlike consumers, professionals' investment in a mobile device, platform, and wireless carrier is a vital one.

When you choose a smartphone for business, you are likely choosing the best or only way that your boss, your colleagues, and your family can be sure to reach you. There is more likely to be a calculable dollar value attached to inbound, work-related e-mail. A workflow can stall, a customer can go ballistic, a trigger can get pulled prematurely because some communication gets past you, or you may need to call somebody you thought was in your handset's contacts list.

[ As smartphones evolve into serious computers, the worlds of iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Nokia Symbian, Palm, and Windows Mobile offer developers new possibilities. See A developer's eye view of smartphone platforms. ]

Reviews play an important role in device selection, but the best thing to do is to talk to people who have lived with what you're considering, who are already locked in, and who, through some weeks or months of experience, have strong opinions and insightful anecdotes to pass along. This is a "review" that aims both to compare the top professional devices and to serve as the expert friend. I have done my best to put myself in the role of the colleague you'd ask, "What do you think of your phone?"

As InfoWorld's resident smartphone reviewer, I evaluate the best candidates for business users as they become available. I also do continuous real-life testing on a group of enterprise and professional mobile handsets, rotating devices whenever I take a business trip and switching regularly during long stretches at home.

Whichever device is under test becomes my exclusive communications channel. All of my calls and e-mail are forwarded to it. People who contact me by IM do so -- or fail to -- through that device. It's the only way I can find my route to unfamiliar destinations. I use the device to get my news, check site statistics, and keep track of my servers. If you're seeking a smartphone to play a similarly prominent role in your daily life, my experience should help you zero in on the right one.

This group of phones is not meant to be all inclusive, but it's varied enough to force a rotation of carrier, platform, and device type. The seven current-generation contenders, with default or exclusive carriers indicated, are the AT&T Fuze/HTC Touch Pro (AT&T 3G), BlackBerry Storm (Verizon 3G), T-Mobile G1 (T-Mobile 3G), Apple iPhone 3G (AT&T), BlackBerry Curve (T-Mobile EDGE), HTC Touch Diamond (Sprint 3G), and BlackBerry Bold (AT&T 3G). Each of these phones has been evaluated by InfoWorld, most of them by me. This article goes beyond those isolated reviews to draw out the handsets' comparative strengths and weaknesses and examine their usability over time.

Drawing the lines

Rather than try to define the non-existent typical professional phone buyer, I'll group devices simplistically by class: fixed QWERTY, sliding QWERTY, and touch. Rather than rank the phones on some precise scale, I'll simply let you know if it stays in my rotation -- that is, becomes a standard against which new devices are judged or is sent out.

All of the vendors and carriers involved in this continuous project have bent review policies and shouldered significant unbudgeted costs with no certainty of positive editorial. The participation of AT&T, HTC, RIM, Apple, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile indicate a willingness to shoot straight with customers. That in itself is a key selection criteria.

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