Best Smartphone for IT: Blackberry vs. iPhone vs. Android

Monday Jan 25th 2010 by Jeff Vance
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The business-focused Blackberry is challenged by the iPhone, which is gaining enterprise share despite its consumer focus. Meanwhile the Android is coming on strong.

ALSO SEE: Best Smartphone for the Enterprise: Evaluating the Contenders

AND: Best Smartphone Security Practices: Five Tips

The year 2009 was a dismal one for carriers and handset vendors alike. Sales were down, replacement cycles were way up and the trend of voice services (be they fixed or mobile) becoming a commodity continued unabated.

Yet, in the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, the mobile market had one piece of encouraging news: smartphone adoption spiked.

According to Gartner, smartphone sales were way up in 2009, representing 14% of the overall mobile market, an increase of 24% over 2008. Gartner believes that adoption will continue to trend upwards, culminating in smartphone sales surpassing PC sales by 2013.

While problems such as security and expensive data plans may well bedevil the space, the fact remains that for IT the time to start planning for smartphones is now. With that in mind, we surveyed the smartphone landscape with one question in mind: which smartphone is the best one for IT? Here’s what we found:

In the Lead (for now): BlackBerry

The BlackBerry started out as a business device, and despite moves to appeal to a broader consumer audience, it remains a business device.

“BlackBerry has the best email platform, best remote monitoring and security, best keyboard, hardiest hardware, best displays, and fantastic battery life due to mobile optimization,” said Maury Margol, president and co-founder of the Wireless Technology Forum.

Margol pointed out that BlackBerry syncs all PIM data over the air with the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, has a removable battery and allows users to run applications in the background – none of which the iPhone does. “BlackBerry may have fewer apps, but the apps they have are business focused,” he added.

Greatest strength: Rock-solid email integration.

Biggest weakness: Browser and OS lag behind those on iPhone and Android.

Hot model: Bold 9700, edging out the Storm2 9550. (Yes, the Storm2 counters iPhones and Androids with a touchscreen, but a BlackBerry just doesn’t feel like a BlackBerry without that built-in keyboard.)

Must-have IT app: Priced at $49.99, Wireless Database Viewer Plus from Cellica Corporation lets you view and update any desktop-side database from your handset. Additionally, this app keeps you current, synching automatically whenever a database is changed.

App IT would like to keep away from users: UnlockIT ($19.99) from Volcari Software helps users get around security policies that require passwords after the phone is idle for a minute or two.

Cool non-IT app: Have you just had one of those days where servers crashed, critical data wasn’t backed up or the latest security exploit ran wild through your organization? If so, fire up the Bartender Pro from Epic Applications. At $2.99, why would you not have a database of stiff drinks at your fingertips? A cool feature is the ability to get recipes tailored to whatever liquor and mixers you have on hand.

Carriers: The big four (AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile), plus a slew of smaller carriers, such as Cellular South, Cincinnati Bell and Metro PCS.

Consumer device storming the enterprise gates: iPhone

The iPhone is and always has been a consumer-focused device, but that hasn’t stopped IT pros from flocking to it.

“I used a BlackBerry for years and was very happy with it,” said Rob Groome, IT manager at University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. “I switched to the iPhone for one simple reason: device consolidation. I was tired of lugging around both a smartphone and iPod.”

For his personal usage, Groome is happy he made the switch. When it comes to managing ICT’s workforce, however, Groome is more circumspect. “It’s important to remember that the iPhone is a personal device that people are using for business. BlackBerry is the reverse.”

According to Groome and other IT pros I spoke with, the iPhone’s biggest flaw, from an IT perspective, is that there is no central management portal. Apple doesn’t have anything that matches the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, which means that centralized security policies are a no-go.

The iPhone has two other glaring weaknesses when it comes to business use: you can’t run apps in the background (if you remember correctly, Apple was late to this game on desktops as well) and you can’t swap out the battery for prolonged use.

That doesn’t mean that the iPhone isn’t winning converts in the IT world. Paul Urfi, director of MIS/IT for Cadec, a telematics firm, calls his iPhone his “Mobile NOC.”

“I live on my iPhone. Everything I can do sitting at my desk, I can do on my iPhone. I VPN in and I can securely do terminal sessions, remote desktop and pretty much any admin job I have on my to-do list,” he said.

Next Page: the Android challenges the Blackberry and iPhone

Urfi uses Mobile Admin from RoveIT, which centralizes more than 500 IT tasks into a single portal. Is Mobile Admin the missing management device that Groome sought? Not exactly, since it doesn’t allow IT to push out and enforce policies to other client devices, but it’s certainly a start.

That said, Urfi is already eyeing up Android phones. “There are so many great apps for the iPhone, but for many of the really cool ones, you have to jailbreak the phone. That’s not a problem with Android. Once the applications catch up, I’ll probably switch.”

Greatest strength: Robust app ecosystem

Biggest weakness: Security

Hot model: iPhone 3GS

Must-have IT app: Worried about open ports or unauthorized (and probably unpatched) devices on your network? Snap from 9BitLabs scans the network you are on to discover servers, routers and even other smartphones.

When Snap finds a device, it displays the manufacturer, any available name information associated with the device and its MAC and IP addresses. This $1.99 app also allows you to scan for common services, such as HTTP, remote login, AppleTalk, and Microsoft networking.

Cool non-IT app: As an Android user myself, Yelp Monocle Snap almost makes me wish I went with an iPhone. An Easter Egg within the Yelp iPhone app, Monocle is accessed by shaking your iPhone three times. Then, point your camera at the street or a nearby business, and Yelp Monocle will use the street view and your GPS coordinates to layer Yelp reviews over the scene. Way cool.

Too bad there’s not something like this for people you meet. Wouldn’t it be nice to see “This guy’s an idiot, run away” layered over the head of the next blowhard you meet at a party?

Carrier: AT&T

Up and coming: Android

None of the IT pros I spoke with are currently using an Android phone, but the majority of them are keeping an eye on it, and many are already planning to switch. Rob Woodbridge, President and CEO of RoveIT, is already porting his Mobile Admin software to the Android.

“We only move to new platforms when we start to see enough demand and we are definitely seeing that now with Android,” he said.

When I asked him which platform Android most directly threatened, he said, “From an IT perspective, I think you need to take into consideration what device the IT professional is currently using: Windows Mobile and BlackBerry in North America and Symbian in Europe. Android will absolutely start to erode the position of all of these in the IT professional’s toolkit, as it is an open-source, secure platform with a bit of cachet.”

Greatest strength: Open platform.

Biggest weakness: Being new, the platform is relatively untested, especially for business use.

Hot model: Motorola Droid

Must-have IT app: The Android marketplace is still in its infancy. There’s simply not as much to choose from as compared to the BlackBerry or iPhone. However, that is changing every day. ServerUP isn’t as full-featured as other IT apps, but this $2.99 app allows you to monitor your network and servers from your Android phone. It’s a start.

Cool non-IT app: Are you a person who always frets about getting the best price on whatever it is you’re buying? If so, the next time you’re heading for the checkout line, take a photo of the barcodes in your cart, and use ShopSavvy from Big In Japan to get product details and competing prices both online and at other nearby brick-and-mortar stores.

Carrier: Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. (ATT&T will offer Droid phones sometime in the first half of this year).

The Rest of the Smartphone Pack

If you’re a Windows Mobile user and you think I’m giving that platform the short shrift, I beg to differ. Anything beyond the PC is still not in Microsoft’s wheelhouse. Do I need to bring up the Zune to hammer home this point?

Despite being a new kid on the block, the iPhone took no time at all to jump ahead of Windows Mobile (and Palm) in terms of market share. Now, with a bevy of new Android phones on the market, Android has probably already jumped ahead of Windows Mobile (numbers for Q409 aren’t yet available).

I’ve also excluded Symbian from this roundup. Were this a European publication, that omission would be unforgivable. Symbian, after all, has a solid 50% of the smartphone market. However, Symbian hasn’t made inroads into the U.S., and the iPhone and Android platforms are already eroding its market share abroad.

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