Are Smartphones Finally Ready for Primetime?
March 2003 - By Lee Sherman


For mobile professionals already weighed down with cellphones, pagers, PDAs and MP3 players, the smartphone is an appealing proposition. Technology has advanced to the point where combining all of this functionality into a single device is no longer the feat of magic it was once perceived to be. James Bond’s quartermaster, Q, is going to have to work a lot harder to dazzle us. But the real question when it comes to smartphones today is not whether they are capable of doing all this, but rather, should they? There’s inevitably a trade-off in even the most capable device, whether it’s the battery life, ergonomic issues or cost.

With advances in mobile technology occurring so quickly, the definition of smartphone is broadening. Greg Yacovone, director of product marketing, Western U.S., at Verizon Wireless, says a smartphone is a device that includes both existing mobile phone functionality (the ability to make voice calls of course, but also short text messaging and WAP) and PDA functionality (not just the ability to organize contacts, meetings, tasks and notes, but also the ability to play MP3s, surf the real Web, exchange instant messages and play games). This all comes in a device small enough to fit in your pocket.

In the future, these devices are expected to go even further, replicating nearly all the functionality of a laptop computer, including the ability to run full-blown enterprise applications, access corporate knowledge bases and support collaborative activities such as videoconferencing, all at speeds that rival desktop computers. But what about today? Where do smartphones fit into your company?

Are they still just gimmicky gadgets aimed at early adopters, or are they ready for use by mainstream mobile professionals? In truth, they are still a little of both as manufacturers struggle with form factors and the right mix of functionality. Microsoft, Palm and Symbian are delivering smartphone operating systems, and development environments such as Java and BREW are ensuring that we’ll soon see real enterprise software. Recent advances such as Sony Ericsson’s T68i and P800, Nokia’s 7650, Handspring’s Treo line and Microsoft’s Pocket PC Phone Edition and Smartphone platforms show that vendors are finally starting to get it right. Smartphones, for all their growing pains, are no longer bricks.

It’s About Convergence

Companies realize packing all that functionality into a mobile device just because you can isn’t what makes a smartphone valuable. The real value is in convergence, which can be something as simple as being able to dial a contact directly from your address book instead of having to balance both PDA and mobile. Or the ability to sync your mobile phone with Outlook so you don’t have to struggle with entering information using a phone keypad.

Consider it from the other side, too. What was once a disconnected organizer becomes a wireless device capable of sending and receiving e-mail and accessing the Web. And it means you can send photographs over the wireless network immediately without having to use your PC as an intermediary.

Although no single form factor has yet to emerge and designs and functionality vary widely from one manufacturer to the next, there are two major categories into which smartphones generally fall. PDA-centric smartphones feature relatively large color touchscreens, offer input via stylus or QWERTY thumb board instead of a number keypad, have powerful processors and enough memory and storage to support multimedia. Few of them offer the removable batteries commonly found in mobile phones, but like computers, they offer expansion slots that let you add memory or additional functionality. They require two hands to be effective and lack voice dialing so they may not be the best choice for the mobile worker who’s always in a truck.

Phone-centric designs come in either clamshell or candy bar (horizontal) styles. They are slightly larger-than-typical mobiles but still quite pocket-friendly. They also have larger-than-average color screens and improved navigation in the form of a joystick, scroll wheel or nav pad. While they include all of the functionality found in a cellphone, including voice dialing, SMS and WAP, they also have colorful, icon-driven interfaces; complete organizers (including sync capability); and limited multimedia support. They are designed for one-handed operation.

Here’s a look at some of the hottest smartphones on the
market today.

Audiovox Thera (also sold as the Toshiba 2032)

Operating system: Micrsoft Pocket PC
Wireless: CDMA 1xRTT
The Audiovox Thera ($699) is a rather unremarkable Pocket PC that also happens to support wireless voice and data functionality via CDMA 1xRTT networks. It features a 206MHz StrongARM processor with 32 MB of RAM; a 65K color 320 by 240-pixel display and an SD slot, making it far more powerful than its Palm OS-based competitors. In addition to the standard quick-access buttons, it has keys for making and ending phone calls.

A stubby antenna is another clue to its wireless capability. Oddly, the Thera is not a Pocket PC Phone Edition device and suffers for
it. Instead of Microsoft’s software it has phone-dialing software from Sierra Wireless that generally lacks the integration offered by Microsoft’s more polished alternative. The Thera is also quite expensive, at up to three times the price of the T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone Edition (see page MP12). Generally, it’s a case of too little, too early. Users who want the power of a Pocket PC with the speed of CDMA 1xRTT networks would be better waiting for an
alternative.

Danger Hiptop

Operating system: Proprietary
Wireless: GSM/GPRS
Much like the first Palm Pilot, the Danger Hiptop ($249), branded by T-Mobile as the Sidekick, is a true appliance. You don't find yourself wondering or even caring about what processor it has, how much memory there is (16 MB) or whether or not it has an expansion slot. Instead you notice how easy it is to use, how fast it is and how well it works for its intended purpose. Like the RIM BlackBerry, this soap-bar-sized device relies on server-side processing to deliver fantastic Web-browsing, e-mail and instant-messaging on its sharp, grayscale screen.

The proprietary organizer software, particularly the address book, is good enough to replace most people’s Palm, and what omissions there are (you can’t prioritize tasks for one) should quickly be remedied by the device’s ability to be updated over-the-air. The phone function of the device is less impressive than the data features, but perfectly adequate. You can either hold it up to the side of your face as you would any phone or use a headset. There’s no touchscreen. Instead three well-designed buttons and a scroll wheel are used to navigate the simple interface.

Rotate the screen to reveal a QWERTY keyboard for messaging. The device isn’t ideal for enterprise users, however. It lacks a color screen, synchronization with desktop PIMs and corporate e-mail, and there’s currently no support for third-party applications (not even Java-based ones).

Handspring Treo 300

Operating system: Palm
Wireless: CDMA 1xRTT
Palm visionary Jeff Hawkins predicted the shift to smartphones quite some time ago and has bravely steered his company, Handspring, away from organizers and toward communicators. Handspring is tiny compared to mobile phone giants like Nokia, Sony-Ericsson, and even Kyocera, but its Treo has proven to be one of the most innovative and popular smartphones.

The latest model, the Treo 300 ($499), is the best yet. It features a unique take on the standard flip-phone. The screen is in the main body of the phone, and the clear cover protects a 4,096-color display that, at 160 by 160 pixels, is the same size as that found on most Palms. The 300 is a single-band, CDMA 1xRTT device that measures 4.4 by 2.8 by 0.8 inches and weighs 5.7 ounces. It runs on a 33MHz DragonBall processor, Palm OS 3.5 and has 16MB of RAM. Instead of either the Graffiti writing pad common to Palm handhelds or a phone keypad, the Treo has a backlit thumb board that proves to be surprisingly handy for looking up and dialing phone numbers; it is also perfect for messaging and e-mail. You can use a scroll wheel for navigation and keep the stylus in its silo.

To make calls you either hold the phone against your ear or use the included headset. Although the lack of a traditional keypad may seem strange at first, the Treo provides the benefits of convergence with very few compromises. It currently lacks voice-dialing, but it does include a speakerphone. Web-browsing with the included Blazer browser is a much more satisfactory experience than using WAP.

Kyocera 7135

Operating system: Palm
Wireless: CDMA 1xRTT
The Kyocera 7135 ($499) offers a more phone-centric design that includes a nicely spaced number pad and a traditional flip-phone design with the screen on the flip portion and the Graffiti area on the bottom. In development for some time, it’s a huge improvement over its predecessor, the QCP 6035, one of the first smartphones to become widely available. The 7135 is a CDMA 1xRTT device that measures 3.97 inches by 2.43 inches by 1.17 inches and weighs 6.6 ounces. It runs Palm OS 4.1 on a 33MHz DragonBall Processor, with 16 MB of RAM. It bests the Treo in several respects. It has a bright indoor- and outdoor-readable 65K color display, a user-replaceable battery, voice-activated dialing, an SD slot (memory only) and an MP3 player. The 7135 includes software for two-way SMS text messaging, Eudora e-mail and three different ways to access the Web (HTML, Web Clipping and WAP).

So what’s missing? The most obvious omission is the lack of Bluetooth support, though Kyocera does offer a data cable that enables the phone to be hooked to a laptop computer for high-speed Internet access. And the QWERTY keyboards found on the Treo and T-Mobile Sidekick are a better bet for data-heavy users.

Nokia 6800

Operating system: Proprietary
Wireless: GPRS
While Nokia’s initial launch of the 6800 might not intrigue American businesses, just you wait. The device is currently being released in Europe, Africa and Asia-Pacific, where it should be a hit with consumers, especially people who will use it for sending MMS messages (up to 3,000 characters each) until their thumbs fall off. The 6800 seems tailor-made for data entry. The cover of this flip-phone swings 180 degrees and locks in place against the display to form a bat-shaped QWERTY keyboard with the screen in the center. The 128 by 128-pixel display boasts 4,096 colors.The 6800 also supports IMAP4/POP3/SMTP e-mail, meaning access to Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Domino and other popular servers won’t be a problem. It also runs WAP and Java 2 Micro Edition software, with storage space for up to 15 different 64KB Java apps.It is compatible with SyncML to streamline the synchronization of PIM data.

But the most exciting thing about the 6800 is what it’s not running—yet. Nokia representatives hinted that the 6800 will soon run the RIM BlackBerry client, giving business users of the addictive “CrackBerry” solution a handy hybrid device.

T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone Edition

Operating system: Microsoft Pocket PC Phone Edition
Wireless: GSM/GPRS
With all of the functionality and style of a naked iPAQ and the capabilities of a GSM/GPRS mobile, this is one powerful smartphone. It runs the Pocket PC Phone Edition software, which integrates mobile phone functionality into the Pocket PC environment (including text messaging). It has a 206MHz StrongARM processor, 32MB of RAM, a 320 by 240-pixel, 4,096-color screen, and an SD slot. Because the phone lacks physical keys of any kind, you must tap on the screen’s number pad, pick from a speed dial list or dial directly from the address book. This works fine for the most part, but heavy phone users will curse each time they have to get the stylus out to dial phone numbers.

And relying on handwriting recognition to scribble text messages is only slightly easier than using a number pad. For users that primarily want a wireless PDA however, the T-Mobile is a good choice. The Web looks decent on the large and bright color screen, and e-mails and SMS messages flow into a single in-box. MSN Messenger is available for instant messaging. T-Mobile must have figured that GPRS was fast for users needing to synch and access data wirelessly, because the phone lacks both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Lee Sherman is a San Francisco-based journalist who specializes in mobile technologies.

 


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