Smartphone Follies

Here’s my 9/18/2008 Idealware post, originally published at http://www.idealware.org/blog/2008/09/smartphone-follies.html

If you man the support desk, or are the accidental techie for an org of ten or more people, chances are that you get a lot of questions about smartphones. And these generally aren’t the “what should I get?” questions as often as they’re the “how do I get my email and schedule on my new [Blackberry/Iphone/Treo/Razr/MotoQ/Sidekick/Android Dream]?”. If the state of computing technology were akin to smartphones, you’d have Commodore, Leading Edge, IBM, and Apple computers, along with IBM Selectric typewriters to support, all running different operating systems and different applications. It’s somewhat insane.

So how can you politely impose some sanity on the smartphone madness? People love THEIR devices; the choice of an Iphone vs a Blackberry is as heated as any political debate. But there are some commons sense arguments that IT can make for a modicum of standardization, without totally denying your users some choice.

It all boils down to email. While smartphones feature a range of operating systems, email platforms tend to support cross-smartphone access. So what’s your email system?

Microsoft Exchange includes ActiveSync. If you run an Exchange server, ActiveSync-capable smartphones can connect directly and wirelessly to it, providing contact, calendar, email and (on some phones) task synchronization. Any Windows Mobile phone includes Activesync, as well as Palm Treos and the newest iPhones (version 2 and above). Exchange 2007 also includes handy features like remote device wipes and access to network shares.

Google Apps/GMail Google makes a GMail for Mobile application that works on most smartphones capable of running java applications, which includes all of the major variants (Windows Mobile, Blackberry, iPhone and Palm).

If you don’t use GMail or have an Exchange server (you either run Outlook or Outlook Express without your own server, or you use a different system), Blackberries offer the ubiquitous solution. RIM, the company that makes them, runs their own server that can act as a gateway for your email service and forward the mail to your phone. Before Microsoft figured out how to support mobiles, this was a sweet, revolutionary offering, but my take is that, compared to Exchange/Activesync, it’s now a bit of a kludge. If you use Blackberries with Exchange, you can increase functionality by buying their Exchange add-in server, but that’s a significant investment that you’re not likely to make without a large fleet of phones. In the meantime, though, here’s a tip: when you set up that Blackberry to access Exchange, pick Outlook WebAccess, not Outlook (assuming you also run Webaccess). The integration through Webaccess updates the server when you read messages on the phone; the vanilla Outlook integration doesn’t. Outlook should be chosen when you don’t offer WebAccess with Exchange.

At my job, we have Exchange and a smartphone policy that states that we support Activesync, as opposed to any particular device. We recommend that our users get Treos or iPhones, because we like them, but don’t complain if they get Wings or MotoQ’s or whatever, because Activesync works the same way on any Windows Mobile device. The staff appreciates the guidance and flexibility; we enjoy the reduced time figuring every new phone out.

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