Deathmatch: BlackBerry versus iPhone

It’s time for us to bury the BlackBerry and move on to modern mobile -- even for e-mail

Editor's note: With the iPhone OS 3.0 released on June 11, we have revised this review to include the iPhone's new capabilities. Read our updated comparison "Deathmatch rematch: BlackBerry versus iPhone 3.0" for the current comparison. Continue reading the story below for the comparison based on the iPhone 2.x OS.

Look at any major analyst firm report since the Apple iPhone was released, and you'll see the earnest intoning to stick with the buttoned-down and pinstriped BlackBerry -- widely admired in executive corridors for its safety and security -- and beware that odd, colorful, possibly dangerous Apple device that consumers may love but professionals should avoid. If the iPhone were meant for work, it wouldn't be so much fun to use, would it?

Yes, it was Mac versus PC all over again: The iPhone was quickly pigeonholed as a fun, polished device for the cool kids to play with versus the RIM BlackBerry's rep as a corporate standard designed to get work done. As with the Mac-versus-PC dichotomy, Apple's focus on visual interface, exotic technologies like touch, and fun stuff (music, video, and games), coupled with its lack of "serious" capabilities such as encryption, let that perception take root as the conventional wisdom.

[ Dive deep into mobile 2.0 technology with InfoWorld's "mobile 2.0" PDF special report. | Check out the slide show "BlackBerry vs. iPhone, side by side." | Get the scoop on all tech mobile in Tom Yager's Mobile Edge blog. ]

I didn't grow up in my corporate life with either an iPhone or a BlackBerry. For me, a phone is something to make calls with, and a PDA handles my contacts and calendar. But a year ago, I replaced my nearly dead Handspring Palm-based PDA with an iPod Touch and quickly grasped the significance of the "modern" PDA -- the importance, from both a personal and a professional point of view, of having the Web, e-mail, and more at my fingertips. To me the iPod Touch, and by extension the iPhone, was about as productive as a PDA could be, yet I saw BlackBerrys everywhere in conferences and business meetings.

What was it about the BlackBerry that I was missing? Would the iPhone really fall short in a business setting?

To find out, I spent a month with an iPhone 3G and a BlackBerry 9000 Bold (the professional model that RIM recommended as the best to compare to an iPhone) to see how well each would fare in my daily grind. (For the answers to that, see my upcoming stories later this week on using the BlackBerry Bold and on using the iPhone 3G as laptop replacements at InfoWorld.com.) In doing so, I also had the chance to compare the two devices in depth: mail to mail, phone to phone, browser to browser, and thumb stroke to touch-tap. In short, I evaluated them based on everything from classic PDA functionality and usability to location-based services and availability of third-party apps.

And how do they stack up? Frankly, I've concluded it's time to bury the BlackBerry. A revolution in its time, thanks to its ability to provide instant, secure e-mail anywhere, the BlackBerry has become the Lotus Notes of the mobile world: It's way past its prime.

I was shocked to discover how bad an e-mail client the BlackBerry is compared to the iPhone. And the BlackBerry is terrible at the rest of what the iPhone excels at: being a phone, a Web browser, an applications platform, and a media presenter. With its Windows 3-like UI, tiny screen, patched-together information structure, and two-handed operation, the BlackBerry is a Pinto in an era of Priuses.

[ See the iPhone versus BlackBerry side by side in InfoWorld's comparative slideshow. ]

Let me show you point by point why most people -- most companies -- should retire their BlackBerrys and adopt iPhones. And why some of you sadly cannot. Note that both devices are available only on AT&T's network, whose coverage and reliability is mediocre on much of the East and West Coasts, a drawback that really hit home when I lost data coverage in lower Manhattan for several hours as AT&T passed me off to roaming partner T-Mobile and its data-less service.

Deathmatch: E-mail, calendars, and contacts
I fully expected the BlackBerry to beat the pants off the iPhone when it came to e-mail. So I was shocked by how awkward e-mail is on the BlackBerry.

In both cases, I used a personal POP account and a work Exchange 2003 account. The iPhone works directly with Exchange, so my e-mail, e-mail folders, calendars, and contacts all flowed effortlessly among the iPhone, laptop, and server. The configuration was trivial. For the BlackBerry, I first used the BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS), which acts like a POP server: You can't access your Exchange folders, contacts, or calendars. And man, is the setup painful, as you step through seemingly countless Web-based configuration screens. After struggling with the limitations of BIS, I asked our IT staff to connect me to our BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) instead, which gave me the connections to folders, contacts, and calendars.

[ Compare modern mobile devices in InfoWorld's guide to next-gen mobile slideshow. | See what BlackBerry-like features the new iPhone OS 3.0 adds -- and misses. ]

It's key to note that BES supports Novell GroupWise and Lotus Notes, while both of those servers support the iPhone only through Web clients, limiting their integration with other iPhone apps such as Contacts and Calendar. Thus, BlackBerry supports more e-mail systems, even though you have to add a dedicated server to get that support (and upgrade to the latest version to support app management). But an iPhone is much easier to use with Exchange than a BlackBerry is, at least as a user. Apple uses Exchange Server 2007 for remote iPhone management (remote kill, configuration, and so on). Apple also provides a free app that lets IT admins manage profiles and internally developed iPhone apps on the devices. The hitch is that the management tool can reach the devices only when they are physically tethered to the admins' computers.

My first struggle with the BlackBerry involved its puzzling timestamping of e-mail messages. Oddly, the BlackBerry lists the messages according to when the device receives them, not when they are sent. (If you open the message, you can see the real date and time.) The first time I told the BlackBerry to "reconcile messages" with the server, so I'd have older messages (past my 30-day setting) available to me, in they flooded -- all stamped with the current date and time, burying my new messages. Each time I got off a plane or turned the BlackBerry on after charging it, all the messages received during those disconnected times would be marked as more recent than the messages I got right after I turned the BlackBerry back on. It makes e-mail management a nightmare.

The second frustration was discovering how hard it is to navigate e-mail. I use folders extensively to manage my messages, and the iPhone makes it very easy to navigate among folders. The BlackBerry lets you navigate down but not up, so it's hard to flip from any one folder to another. And on the BlackBerry, the original message stayed in the top-level inbox, so now the message existed in two places: my too-cluttered inbox and in the folder to which I moved the message from my computer.

Reading e-mail was comparable on both devices, though the iPhone's larger screen requires less scrolling. I prefer the iPhone's on-screen controls for replying, forwarding, and so forth over the BlackBerry's use of its button to open a contextual menu, but that's an acceptable UI-based difference. Still, the BlackBerry's menu is too long and requires too much scrolling for common functions. It's easier to delete messages on an iPhone, both in the list and when reading a message, than on the BlackBerry. The culprit is the BlackBerry's reliance on the step-intensive contextual menu for almost everything you do.

The BlackBerry and iPhone are mixed bags when it comes to navigating messages. Both the BlackBerry and iPhone offer a quick way to jump to the top of your message list, but only the BlackBerry has a way to jump to the bottom. And only the BlackBerry lets you search messages. The iPhone makes it very easy to select multiple messages to delete or move them, while the BlackBerry can only multiple-select contiguous messages, which in practice means you can't work on many messages at once. (There is a workaround for some situations: You can search your messages by name, subject, title, or attachment status, then select those files -- still contiguously -- to work on them.)

Both the BlackBerry and iPhone let you view common attachment formats such as Word, Excel, and PDF. But the iPhone can't handled zipped attachments, while the BlackBerry nicely shows you a list of the contents so that you can open the ones you want.

With both the iPhone and BlackBerry, you can add people who e-mail you as contacts, but the BlackBerry unnecessarily complicates the process. If it can't figure out the person's name, it forces you to enter that before it will save the contact. The iPhone, on the other hand, lets you fill in that information at another time, so at least the e-mail address is stored for easy access later. The iPhone also notes who you respond to and adds them to the quick-selection list of addressees it displays as you begin tapping a name, even if they're not in the address book. The BlackBerry only displays names in the address book.

Both the BlackBerry and iPhone are annoying when it comes to handling calendar invites, but the iPhone is worse. If you get a calendar invitation as an e-mail attachment on an iPhone, you can't accept it from your e-mail; the iPhone can only sync calendars already handled by Exchange. Plus, you can't move an event from one iPhone calendar to another, such as from your personal calendar to your work one. That's just dumb. But a BlackBerry doesn't recognize multiple Exchange calendars, so even if you distinguish private from work calendars in Exchange, the BlackBerry does not. The same is true if your desktop calendar app has multiple calendars; the BlackBerry sees them all as one. (The BlackBerry treats events in each e-mail account, plus those in your synced desktop calendar, as a separate calendar.)

Another area where the BlackBerry hung me up: I could accept some invites sent to me, but not others. The BlackBerry would often tell me that I could not accept invites because I was the meeting organizer -- even though I was not. The BlackBerry also overloads you with calendar item details when you open an invite -- it's overwhelming and not necessary.

The iPhone clearly has some issues, but for such a mature platform, the BlackBerry is surprisingly mediocre when it comes to e-mail. The iPhone makes it easier to read, send, and organize e-mails and contacts, but it falls short when it comes to zipped attachments, handling invites, and searching e-mail. Both disappoint for calendar management.

Deathmatch: Applications
RIM has made a lot of noise about its BlackBerry App World store, and Apple recently celebrated its 1 billionth App Store download. Make no mistake: The selection of BlackBerry apps is not only limited, but the apps themselves are typically pale, pathetic imitations of iPhone apps. (Compare the New York Times or Salesforce.com on the two devices, for example.) And downloading an app to the BlackBerry usually means wading through several pages and prompts. I much prefer the iPhone's simple, fast approach to downloads. Like much of the iPhone UI, the App Store recognizes that you're using a mobile device and that six-screen legal agreements and endless "Are you sure" confirmations are not mobile-friendly. If you download an iPhone app by accident, deleting it takes a couple seconds -- and the whole download-install-remove process takes less time than just starting a BlackBerry App World download.

To add insult to injury, there's no desktop version of the App World store to peruse available options, as there is for the iPhone, and the BlackBerry's tiny screen makes it hard to do any real perusing or searching. I was also put off by the fact that the BlackBerry App World functionality itself is a BlackBerry app, requiring a download before you can even get started. Not only that, but downloading App World to the BlackBerry from my desktop system via a USB connection required me to use Internet Explorer as my browser. (As a Mac user, I can't.)

The UI for managing apps on the BlackBerry is pathetic. There are at least four places that apps can reside on the device, so finding them is an unwelcome Easter egg hunt. On an iPhone, they're easily and consistently accessible, and infinitely easier to organize than on the BlackBerry.

Most BlackBerry "native" apps I tried were just glorified WAP apps, not real apps that take advantage of device-specific capabilities, as native iPhone apps do. (WAP is the DOS-like mobile "Web" technology that the cellular industry tried to palm off on us in the late 1990s.) BlackBerry apps -- at least so far -- are incapable of doing the cool things that iPhone apps can do, whether acting as a level or a credit card terminal, managing your Amazon.com orders, or translating foreign-language terms (even hearing the pronunciation, which was handy on a recent trip to Portugal). Awkward interfaces make many BlackBerry apps painful to use, and they usually cost two or three times as much as their iPhone equivalents.

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