iPhone 3G enterprise scores are in

In the first bout over professional user experience, iPhone 3G wins over BlackBerry -- but not easily

Mobile solution decisionmakers, from individual professionals to CTOs, are beginning to see the need for style to play an increasing role in device selection, and the iPhone 3G is the de facto choice.

Apple's iPhone 2.0 OS brought Cisco VPN, Exchange Server e-mail, and native custom applications to Apple's devices, bringing utility to the mix to make the iPhone an enterprise shoo-in. On style, the iPhone is unbeatable. As a lure for prospective employees, a salve for ailing morale, or an image-setter in a business meeting, the iPhone 3G is unmatched (see my original review). For some millions of buyers, that's the whole story, full stop, and there is nothing wrong with that.

[ Executive Editor Galen Gruman is unconvinced that the iPhone OS 2.0 software is really enterprise-quality. Find out why. | Interested in more about the iPhone? See our slideshow about "Top 10 iPhone apps for the techie" ]

You may know that I have embarked on a project to supplant deployed BlackBerry handsets with iPhone 3G devices in an enterprise scenario. I've spent the past month or so with this.

There's too much to cover in one blog entry, so I'll reveal my findings over several weeks, with this week dedicated to the user experience of a professional switched from BlackBerry to iPhone 3G.

The basic user interface

The iPhone's take on an iconic home screen app launcher was taken from the BlackBerry. Now, as with original monochrome BlackBerry devices, the BlackBerry GUI home screen masks text-based PIM and messaging interfaces that look archaic. BlackBerry users forgive the lack of good looks for readability and information density. Scalable anti-aliased fonts and a customizable columnar layout make the uninspiring BlackBerry inbox a user favorite.

The iPhone 3G's interface is consistently graphical and graphically consistent. All of the iPhone's standard applications are beautiful, responsive, and stable.

The accuracy of the on-screen keyboard has come a long way since iPhone OS 1.0. As of iPhone OS 2.1, it takes less time to acclimate to thumb typing. The iPhone's predictive and corrective text entry are critical here, and they're capable of seemingly miraculous divination of the word you had in mind even if half of the letters are mistyped. But BlackBerry users will miss their extensible abbreviation and common misspellings dictionary.

Web navigation

For UI style, the iPhone 3G has it all over the BlackBerry, but the iPhone's emphasis on finger touch has some unexpected drawbacks.

Take the iPhone's Safari browser, for example. With no dedicated navigation control (the BlackBerry has a pearl-sized, clickable trackball), Web forms are tough to fill in.

By contrast, the BlackBerry's trackball works like a tab key, sequentially highlighting clickable controls and scrolling to bring them into view. With the iPhone, buttons and hypertext links must be tapped on, which often requires zooming in far enough to make the target the size of your fingertip.

The iPhone has no options to set the default page size or to make text larger, so zooming is a frequent necessity. The iPhone makes zooming easy for read-only browsing, but forms are a bear. For interactive content, Safari works best with sites specifically designed for it.

Working across apps and documents

The BlackBerry has a single buffer for copy/cut/paste operations that works across applications. You can't cut, copy, or cut on the iPhone.

Unlike the iPhone, the BlackBerry allows several applications to run at once, so you can pull text from a note to an e-mail message, paste text from an e-mail message to a Web-based blog entry interface, and so on. The BlackBerry's paste buffer only supports unformatted text, and for the most part, that can be said of the device as a whole.

The BlackBerry -- at least the 8800 and 8820 devices I used -- has inadequate, borderline useless support for rich document attachments to e-mail through painfully slow server-side rendering. HTML e-mail is not rendered with formatting intact.

As you'd expect, the iPhone is all about visuals. With Safari embedded into the mail client, HTML e-mail snaps to the screen as fast as text. Viewers for PDF and Office/iWork documents are intrinsic to the mail client. iPhone users are set up to expect a desktop-like experience with rich e-mail attachments, but the iPhone doesn't yet deliver.

I worked most often with the iPhone's PowerPoint/Keynote and PDF viewers. They rendered the first page of most documents fairly quickly, but navigation within a document was slow, and the viewers consistently crashed or went unresponsive for unpredictable periods of time while navigating within documents over 20 pages or so. I do prefer an unstable rich document viewer to none at all, and when the viewer is functioning, its rendering is bang-on.

Other usability issues

I have just enough time to rattle off some other usability contrasts, starting with media. iPhone is, after all, an iPod. It's got widescreen, which traditional BlackBerry devices don't deliver. The display is beautiful, and everybody with an iPod can push their entire iTunes library to their iPhone. That's at least half of the appeal.

The BlackBerry's multimedia capabilities aren't bad. Its video player operates at full-frame rate, and bundled utilities from Roxio convert video clips into BlackBerry-friendly formats. Even so, the BlackBerry is no iPod, and I can't see watching a movie on it.

The BlackBerry does have intrinsic support for streaming video and audio, and among the things I missed in moving from the BlackBerry to the iPhone 3G were my NPR streams.

I became entirely dependent on TeleNav turn-by-turn navigation on my BlackBerry, and it pained me to learn that navigation is a class of software that Apple has effectively banned on its device. The ban isn't as deep as some imagine -- simply that Apple doesn't allow third-party applications to run in the background, and real-time navigation needs to run continuously. The BlackBerry can swing this, so it can run TeleNav.

The iPhone supports Google Maps with Apple's A-GPS (satellite GPS bolstered by Wi-Fi access point location). It is useless for highway travel but a godsend for bailing you out when you're almost there but can't find your turn.

The iPhone's tricks of mapping contacts' addresses, dialing phone numbers in e-mail messages, and surfing to URLs in e-mail were BlackBerry features before the iPhone came to market. But getting contacts and appointments into your BlackBerry is literally another story.

To close on the user experience, iPhone's deal maker is the App Store. It's a consumer software bargain bin, with iTunes making sure that you never have to pay for anything twice. Many of the low-budget native apps crash or lock up if you run them long enough, but with typical prices between free and $2.99, you learn to forgive. The App Store is more of a detriment to productivity than iTunes and SMS combined, but it proves that given time, there's nothing the iPhone can't do.

Apple will keep kicking iPhone revisions out at a pace far more aggressive than Research in Motion will for thw BlackBerry. iPhone OS 1.0 and iPhone OS 2.0 are just revised software, but iPhone OS 2.0 remade the device. Apple will do that again, and the iPhone 3G makes you want to be there to see what OS versions 2.5, 2.8, and 3.0 will be like. One thing you can expect is that when Apple issues an iPhone OS upgrade, it will cover every iPhone and iPod Touch device in the wild.

The BlackBerry can't afford frequent updates -- the stability of the platform is paramount, and older BlackBerry models are dropped from firmware update schedules earlier in their life cycle than I'd like.

iPhone users will trade a measure of disruption for the thrill of new features -- and make no mistake, iPhone is made to thrill users. Now, can it thrill the enterprise? Check back in a week.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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