Choosing a good mobile smartphone is crucial for many small businesses. The right smartphone can make all the difference between being productive on the road and being ineffective away from the office. Small business owners looking to choose a mobile smartphone for themselves, or their workers, should think strongly about passing up the iPhone for an Android.
Don't get me wrong, the iPhone is a fine smartphone. I own one, and I've been using it since the first generation phones came out. Its interface is fantastic, you'll find tons of applications for it, and it tends to be a really good device.
As a consumer device, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend an iPhone (or Android phone) to a friend or family member. The two platforms are largely matched on features and application availability at this point. But the iPhone has several strikes against it as a business device that should give you pause, and have caused me to start looking at Android.
Mobile Smartphone: Hardware
As an open source advocate, you might expect that most of my objections to the iPhone have to do with the fact that it's not even a tiny bit open source. The Android platform is based on Linux and much (but not all) of the code is open source. But that's not why I recommend Android for small business owners. The benefits of open source are fantastic, but the actual business case for the Android is what drives me to recommend it for small business. The fact that Android is open source is merely icing on the cake.
The first problem with the iPhone is the paucity of devices. With Android, users can choose quite a few devices from different vendors. This gives you a better chance of finding a phone with the specs you need at a reasonable price point. The iPhone 4 antenna debacle is a fairly strong indicator that Apple is over its head in trying to design hardware, operating system and applications for the phone and tablet devices. Oh, and there's the whole computer business it runs as well.
Google, on the other hand, is wisely working with partners that have far more expertise in delivering handsets and has pulled the plug on its own offerings. And that means not only better testing (at least in theory), but also better choice. Want a keyboard? There's a phone with that. Want a larger device? There's an option for that, too. Though the Dell Streak hasn't been launched in the U.S. just yet, it's supposed to be available by the end of July. By all accounts it provides not only a great tablet experience but also makes a good (if biggie-sized) phone.
From Apple, you can have any phone you want -- so long as it's designed and built by Apple. The company does a great job of producing a nice-looking phone and innovating in some areas, like its Retina Display. But Apple also denies its users features they really want, like removable batteries, keyboards, varying form factors, removable memory, and so on.
Let's Talk Mobile Apps
Google is catching up to the iPhone at a furious pace when it comes to applications. The numbers, by the way, are largely meaningless. Both Android and Apple have tens of thousands of applications, and thousands of those are of no interest to small business owners at all. Key applications like Evernote, however, tend to be available for both.
For small business owners, though, I'd give Google the advantage. And that's because Google has no policy of denying "competing" applications to its users. Apple's review process for the App store sometimes denies worthy applications because they compete with Apple's own offerings -- or because Apple doesn't like the way that the developers use the API. Or because the developer was trying to write cross-platform applications using a non-native language.
One of the biggest strikes against the iPhone for me is the lack of Google Voice on the iPhone. Yes, you can use Google Voice via a Web application, but it's not quite the same thing. Google Voice is a great tool for small businesses, especially single-proprietor businesses. But even if Google Voice wasn't on my "must-have" list of applications, the fact that Apple and AT&T are willing to blatantly shut out a competing app that is useful to customers makes the iPhone a poor choice for a device that's integral to your business.
This is also a problem for bigger businesses because there's no good way to get custom applications onto a phone. Maybe a business has a custom smartphone application it wants to distribute to its employees -- like an inventory application or sales tool. You may not run into problems having the application approved in the App Store, but who wants to make something like that available to the general iPhone-using population?
Many Android phones have other avenues to load applications aside from the officially approved marketplace. As smartphones continue to inherit tasks that were once only intended for laptops or desktop computers, businesses need a way to load their own in-house applications. This might even apply to small businesses that depend on custom applications to do business.
Finally, carrier choice looms large when choosing a smartphone, and it's just a bad idea to choose a platform that only has one carrier. Don't like AT&T's service? Too bad, its the only carrier in the U.S. blessed to offer the iPhone. This would be bad even if AT&T was delivering superior service with low prices. But it's not. The recent change in AT&T's data pricing, its overly expensive text plans and spotty coverage make it a poor choice as a mobile carrier. As a soon-to-be former AT&T customer, I can say this with authority.
Of course, you can choose AT&T for an Android phone if you choose. But you can also choose T-Mobile, Verizon and others with Android. The same is true in other countries as well. While Apple has largely gone with single-carrier deals, Android is available from several vendors.
Android isn't perfect, but the combination of openness, hardware options and carrier choice make Android a far better option for any small business owner.
Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years covering IT. Formerly the openSUSE Community Manager for Novell, Brockmeier has written for Linux Magazine, Sys Admin, Linux Pro Magazine, IBM developerWorks, Linux.com, CIO.com, Linux Weekly News, ZDNet, and many other publications. Brockmeier is also a FLOSS advocate and participates in several projects, including GNOME as the PR team lead. You can reach Zonker at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.
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