Get Smart: A Guide to Smartphones

The smartphone, a cross between a cell phone and a portable digital assistant (PDA) is rapidly becoming an essential piece of business equipment, not just for corporate salary types, but for small business people, too.

If you need to keep up with e-mail when you’re away from the computer, if you need your full contact database and up-to-date calendar with you at all times, if you need to be able to surf the Web and keep up with news while you’re mobile, you need a smartphone.

All the major cellular carriers offer smartphone products. They range in price from $100 to $600, depending on functionality, power, design – and the duration of the cellular voice or voice/data contract you purchase with them. The longer you’re willing to commit to using (and paying for) their service, the more the carriers will subsidize the price of your smartphone.

RIM's Blackberry Pearl
The Blackberry Pearl, from RIM.

Most smartphone vendors fall into two camps: cell phone manufacturers, such as Nokia, that have added computing functions to their phones and PDA makers, such as Hewlett-Packard, that have added communications capabilities to their PDAs.

Apple iPhone

Network Mysteries
Most cellular subscribers have no idea what kind of wireless technology their carrier uses, and they don’t need to know. Unless they expect to do a lot of overseas roaming.

Roaming is when you use your phone in an area where your carrier doesn’t have coverage. The carrier maintains many usually reciprocal agreements with other carriers who provide you service when you’re in their area.

Roaming is a more important issue with smartphones because now your phone is not something you can easily swap for another that works on the local network. The smartphone is also your mobile computer, stuffed with all your vital information.

So what’s the issue? There are two main wireless network technologies: CDMA, developed in the U.S. by Qualcomm, and GSM, developed in Europe. You can’t roam with a CDMA phone on a GSM network or vice versa.

It’s not a problem if you only roam within North America. Regardless of the network technology your carrier uses, you’ll be able to get roaming coverage wherever you go. However, elsewhere in the world, it can be an issue.

There are CDMA networks in Asia-Pacific, but virtually none in Europe, where GSM dominates. GSM is also widely used in other parts of the world, including in developing countries. So if you expect to travel outside North America and want to roam with your new smartphone, you need to look closely at where you’ll be able to get service. For most business travelers, choosing GSM probably provides a slight edge.

In the U.S., the main GSM carriers are Cingular (now AT&T) and T-Mobile, but many regional and local providers also offer service on GSM networks. The main CDMA-based carriers are Verizon and Sprint Nextel. All have upgraded to higher-capacity and higher-data-speed 3G (third generation) wireless networks – 1xEV-DO (CDMA) or EDGE (GSM).

Note also that if you want to roam overseas, you will have to buy a smartphone that can work on the radio frequencies used for cellular in the countries you’ll likely visit. Look for a “quad-band” or world phone (usually GSM) to give you maximum flexibility. You will pay a premium for a world phone.

Palm Treo 700wx
The Treo 700wx, from Palm.

Pick a Platform
There are three main operating system platforms for smartphones: RIM BlackBerry, Symbian (which is used in Nokia and other phones) and Microsoft Windows Mobile, also used in phones made by several manufacturers. All have their claimed advantages.

Symbian, which has been around for a long time, but more in Europe than North America, has attracted many software developers who have created hundreds or thousands of add-on applications for Symbian phones – more by most accounts than exist for BlackBerry or Windows Mobile. Benefit: more choice.

BlackBerry traditionally offered the best e-mail experience and the best-designed user interfaces. Microsoft claims its Windows Mobile devices are easier for most people to learn and use because they work something like Windows on a computer. It’s also supposedly easier for Windows-based companies to develop applications for Windows Mobile.

Much of the wrangling for ascendancy in the smartphone market has revolved around how the phones handle e-mail, the most crucial application besides voice.

With most mobile e-mail solutions, you have to tell the device to make a connection with a mail server over the cellular network to download your messages. Most let you set up periodic checks – every 15 minutes or every hour, for example. Many will only get part of the message. If you want to read it all, you have to tell it to connect again and download the rest.

With ‘push’ e-mail, pioneered by RIM over a decade ago, you don’t have to do anything. RIM relays messages to you automatically from your regular e-mail box (at an ISP or on a corporate e-mail server) as soon as they’re received. And on BlackBerry devices, you always get the entire message, including attachments if you want.

Until fairly recently RIM had a clear competitive advantage in this area. Getting e-mail on a BlackBerry was simpler, faster and more reliable.

But with the introduction of Windows Mobile 5 last year and a new version of the Exchange e-mail server, Microsoft could also offer companies a push e-mail experience. And service providers have emerged that sell BlackBerry-like push e-mail service for Windows Mobile and Symbian devices through cellular carriers just as RIM does.

Bottom Line
For our money and in our experience, BlackBerry still provides the best mobile e-mail experience, though Windows Mobile is catching up. If e-mail is the most important application for you, choose one of these two.

Windows Mobile is easy to use because it’s somewhat familiar to anyone who uses a Windows PC, but the BlackBerry and Symbian software interfaces are also very user friendly. If you’re looking for a small smartphone, you may find yourself gravitating to Symbian-based models.

If your company has any thought of developing custom mobile data applications or having them developed, Windows Mobile has a slight edge. There are more programmers and companies with skills to develop applications for it, and the costs may be lower because developers can use the same tools they use for Windows applications on the desktop.

Finally, consider carefully which added features you need. If you spend a lot of time on the road, for example, stopping at coffee shops and restaurants along the way, buying a smartphone with Wi-Fi capabilities will mean you can use hotspots, saving money on cellular air time, getting your mail quicker and surfing the Web at higher speeds.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the Forums. Join the discussion today!

Must Read

Get the Free Newsletter!

Subscribe to Daily Tech Insider for top news, trends, and analysis.