Tag Archives: palm

Smartphone Talk

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in June of 2009.

The last few weeks saw some big announcements in the smartphone world:

  • Palm released the phone that they’ve been promising us for years, the Palm Pre, with it’s new WebOS, to reviews that were mostly favorable and summed up as “The iPhone’s baby brother“.
  • Apple stole some of Palm’s thunder by dominating the press two days later with news of their relatively unexciting new phones and 3.0 software.
  • In the weeks prior, news came out that about 18 more Android phones should be out in calendar 2009 and that, by early 2010, all of the major carriers will have them.
  • And Nokia’s E71 hit our shores, an incredibly full-featured phone that you can get for just over $300 unlocked, and use the carrier of your choice. While this isn’t a touchscreen, and is therefore suspect in terms of it’s ease of use, it is an amazingly full-featured product.

Left in the wings were Blackberry, who keep producing phones, including their iPhone competitor, the Storm — to yawns from the press, and Microsoft, who are talking a lot about Windows Mobile 6.5 and 7.0, but seem to have really been decimated by the ugliness of their mobile OS when compared to just about anyone else’s.

What’s clear is that a few things differentiate smartphones these days, and the gap between the ones that get it and the ones that don’t are huge. They are:

Responsive Touchscreen Interfaces. The UI’s of the iPhone, Android and Palm’s WebOS get around the sticky problem that phones were just to small to support anything but simple functionality without requiring an oppressive amount of taps and clicks. This is why Microsoft has fallen down the smartphone food chain so far and fast — their mobile OS is just like their desktop OS, with no flagship phone that does the touchscreen nearly as well as the new competition.

Desktop-Class Web Browsers. This is where Apple and Google have drawn a huge line, and it looks like Palm might have joined them. All three use browser’s based on Webkit, the same technology that fuels Safari and Chrome. On a 3G phone, this makes for a fast and complete experience that puts the Blackberry, Mobile Internet Explorer and the Treo’s hideous Blazer. Add Google’s voice activation (native on Android and available for iPhone), and their smartphone-optimized results (which don’t work on the non-webkit browsers) and the task of finding a Starbucks or hotel on the road takes seconds, instead of the average ten to 15 minutes on the old, lousy browsers, which simply choke on the graphics.

Push Email. If you connect to Exchange servers, the iPhone and Pre have Activesync built in. If your mail is with Google, you’re connected to it as soon as you tell an Android phone your login and password. And the Android phone app is the best out there, with Apple’s mail running close behind it. What’s ironic is that Microsoft targeted their biggest threat with Activesync — the Blackberry’s kludgy, but, at the time, unparalleled email forwarding — and gave it wings by licensing it to Palm, Apple and others. This is fueling corporate acceptance of the iPhone and Pre, meaning that this Blackberry-beating strategy might have worked, but more likely it did it for Apple and Palm, not Microsoft.

Music. The iPhone is an iPod; everything else isn’t, meaning that, if having a high quality phone and music experience on one device is a priority, you’re not going to go wrong with the iPhone. I love my G1, but I weigh my value of the real keyboard and awesome, open source OS on T-Mobile over the iPhone’s built-in iPod and Activesync on AT&T. As OSes go, Android is only marginally better than Apple, but the Apple hardware is much better than the G1. Newer Android phones are going to show that up.

People make a lot of noise about the apps available for the iPhone (and Windows/Blackberry) as opposed to the newer Android and Pre. I think that’s a defining question for the Pre, but it looks like companies are jumping on board. For Android, it’s quite arguably a wash. All of the important things are available for Android and, given that it’s open source, most of them are free. And with those 18 phones due out by year end on every carrier, the discrepancies will be short-lived.

I have to wonder how long it will take Microsoft to “get” mobile. They have a heavy foot in the market as the commodity OS on the smartphones that can’t get any buzz. But the choice to bring the worst things about the Windows Desktop experience to their mobile OS was unfortunate. Should I really get a pop-up that has to be manually dismissed every time I get an email or encounter a wireless network? Do I have to pull out the stylus and click on Start every time I want to do anything? What’s even more worrisome is that Windows Mobile is a separate OS from Windows, that merely emulates it, as opposed to sharing a code base. Apple’s OS is the same OSX that you get on a MacBook, just stripped down, and Google’s OS is already starting to appear on Netbooks and other devices, and will likely fuel full desktops within a year or two — it is, after all, Linux.

So, the state of the smartphone market is easily broken into the haves and have-nots, meaning that some phones have far more usable and exciting functionality, while most phones don’t. There’s a whole second post dealing with the choice of carriers and their rankings in the race to offer the most customer disservice, and it does play into your smartphone decision, as Verizon might be a very stable network, but their phone selection is miserable, and AT&T might have the best selection but, well, they’re AT&T. I love Android, so, were I looking, I’d hold out until four or five of those new sets are out. But I don’t know anyone with an iPhone who’s unsatisfied (and I know lots of people with iPhones).

Small Footprints, Robotic and Otherwise

Here’s my 11/7/2008 Idealware post, originally published at http://www.idealware.org/blog/2008/11/small-footprints-robotic-and-otherwise.html

As the proud owner of a T-Mobile G1, the first phone out running Google’s Android Mobile Operating System (OS), I wanted to post a bit about the state of the Mobile OS market.  I’ve been using a smartphone since about 1999, when I picked up a proprietary Sprint phone that could sync with my Outlook Contacts and Calendar.  We’ve come a long way; we have a long way to go before the handheld devices in our pocket overcome the compromises and kludges that govern their functionality.  My personal experience/expertise is with Palm Treos, Windows Mobile, and now Android; but I have enough exposure to Blackberries and the iPhone to speak reasonably about them. My focus is a bit broader than “which is the best phone?”  I’m intrigued by which is the best handheld computing platform, and what does that mean to cash-strapped orgs who are wrestling with what and how they should be investing in them.

I wrote earlier on establishing Smartphone policies in your org.  The short advice there was that the key Smartphone application is email, and you should restrict your users to phones that offer the easiest, most stable integration with your office email system.  That’s still true.  But other considerations include, how compatible are these phones with other business applications, such as Salesforce or our donor database? How easy/difficult are they to use and support? How expensive are they?  What proprietary, marketing concerns on the part of the vendors will impact our use of them?

The big players in the Smartphone OS field are, in somewhat random order:

  • Palm: PalmOS
  • Nokia: Symbian*
  • RIM: Blackberry OS
  • Microsoft: Windows Mobile
  • Apple: iPhone
  • Google: Android

Palm is the granddaddy of Mobile OSes, and it shows.  The interface is functional and there are a lot of apps to support it, but there isn’t much recent development for the platform. Palm has been working on a major, ground -up rewrite for about two years, code-named Nova, but it has yet to come to light, and there’s a serious question now as to whether they’ve taken too long.  Whatever they come up with would have to be pretty compelling to grab the attention of customers and developers in light of Apple and Google’s offerings.

  • App Support: C (lots, but not much new; Treos do Activesync)
  • Ease of Use: C (functional, but not modern interface)
  • Cost: C (Not sure if there’s much more than Palm Treo’s available, $200-200 w/new contract)

Nokia’s Symbian platform is notable for being powerful and open source.  It’s more popular outside of the US, I’m not sure if there are any Symbian smartphones offered directly from US carriers, which makes them pretty expensive.  They do support Activesync, the Microsoft Exchange connector, and have a mature set of applications available.

  • App Support: B (Activesync, lots of apps, but missing some business apps, like Salesforce)
  • Ease of Use: B (Strong interface, great multimedia)
  • Cost: D (Over the roof in US, where contracts don’t subsidize expense).

The Blackberry was the first OS to do push email, and it gained a lot of market and product loyalty as a result.  But, to get there, they put up their own server that subscribes to your email system and then forwards the mail to your phone.  This was great before Microsoft and Google gave us opportunities to set up direct connections to the servers.  Now it’s a kludge, offering more opportunities for things to break.  They do, however, have a solid OS with strong business support – they are either on top or second to Microsoft (with Apple charging up behind them) in terms of number of business apps available for the platform.  So they’re not going anywhere, they’re widely available, and a good choice if email isn’t your primary smartphone application.

  • App Support: A- (lots of everything except Activesync)
  • Ease of Use: B (Solid OS that they keep improving)
  • Cost: B (Range of models at decent prices)

Windows Mobile has broad third party support and powerful administrative functions.  It comes with Activesync, of course.  There are tons of smartphones running it, more than any other OS. But the user interface, in this writer’s opinion (which I know isn’t all that pro-Microsoft, but I swear I’m objective), is miserable.  With Windows Mobile (WinMo) 5, they made a move to emulate the Windows Desktop OS, with a Start Menu and Programs folder.  This requires an excessive amount of work to navigate.  If you use more than the eight apps (or less, depending on model/carrier), you have your work cut out for you to run that ninth app. And the notification system treats every event — no matter how trivial — as something you need to be interrupted for and acknowledge.  It’s hard to imagine how Microsoft is going to compete with this clunker, and you have to wonder how the millions they spend on UI research allowed them to go this route.

  • App Support: A (tons of apps out there)
  • Ease of Use: D (the most clunky mobile OS.  Period.)
  • Cost: A (The variety of phones means you get a range of prices and hardware choices)

Apple’s iPhone represents a leap in UI design that instantly placed it on top of the pack.  Best smartphone ever, right out of the first box.  Apple clearly read the research they commissioned, unlike Microsoft, and thought about how one would interact with a small, restricted device in ways that make it capable and expansive.  The large, sensitive touch screen with multi-touch capabilities rocks.  The web browser is almost as good as the one you use on your desktop (and this is important – web browsers on the four systems above are all very disappointing – only Apple and Google get this right).  The iPhone really shines, of course, as a multimedia device.  It’s a full-fledged iPod and it plays videos as well as a handheld device could.  As a business phone, it’s adequate, not ideal.  While it supports Activesync and has great email and voicemail clients, it lacks a physical keyboard and cut+paste — features that all of their competitors provide (although the keyboard varies by phone model).  So if you do a lot of writing on your phone (as I do), this is a weak point on the iPhone.

  • App Support: A (it’s still pretty new, but development has been fast and furious)
  • Ease of Use: A- (Awesome, actually, except for text processing)
  • Cost: B (since they dropped it to $199).

Android is Google’s volley into the market, and it stands in a class with Apple that is far above the rest of the pack.  The user interface is remarkably functional and geared toward making all of the standard things simple to do, even with one hand.  The desktop is highly customizable, allowing you to put as many of the things you use a touch away.  This phone is in a class with the iPhone, but has made a few design choices that balance the two out.  The iPhone makes better use of the touch screen, with multi-touch features that Google left out.  But the iPhone is has far less customizable an interface.  And, of course, the first Android phone has a full keyboard and (limited) cut and paste.  It is, however, brand new, and I’ll discuss the future below, but right now the third party app market is nascent.  Today, this phone is best suited for early adopters.

  • App Support: C (it will be A in a year or so)
  • Ease of Use: A
  • Cost: A (G1’s are selling for as low as $150w/new plan)

The big question, if you’re investing in a platform, is where are these all going?  Smartphone operating systems are more plentiful and competitive than the desktop variety, where Windows is still the big winner with Apple and the Unix/Linux variants pushing to get in.  But the six systems listed above are all widely deployed.  Palm and Nokia have the least penetration and press these days, but they’re far from knocked out.  Nokia could make a big push to get Symbian into the market and Palm’s Nova could prove to be really compelling — at one point, Palm was king of these devices.  Today, the interesting battle is between the other four, Microsoft, RIM, Apple and Google.  Of these four, all but Android are commercial OSes; Android is fully open source.  RIM and Apple are hardware/software manufacturers, building their own devices and not licensing their OSes to others.  Windows Mobile and Android are available for any hardware manufacturer to deploy.  This suggests two things about the future:

Proprietary hardware/software combos have a tenuous lead.  RIM and Apple are at the top of the market right now.  Clearly, being able to design your OS and hardware in tandem makes for smoother devices and more reliability.  But this edge will wane as hardware standards develop (and they are developing).  At that point, the variety of phones sporting Windows and Google might overwhelm the proprietary vendors.  Apple is big now, but this strategy has always kept them in a niche in the PC market.  They dominate in the MP3 player world, but they got that right and made a killing before anyone could catch up; that edge doesn’t seem to be as strong in the mobile market.

Open Source development won’t be tied to the manufacturer’s profit margin. Android’s status as open source is a wild card (Nokia is Open Source, too, so some of this applies).  Apple and Microsoft have already alienated developers with some of their restrictive policies.  If Android gets wide adoption, which seems likely (Sprint, Motorola, HTC and T-Mobile are all part of Google’s Open Handset alliance, and both AT&T and Verizon are contemplating Android phones), the lack of restrictions on the platform and the Android market (Google’s Android software store, integrated with the OS) could grab a significant percentage of the developer’s market.  I’ve been pleased to see how quickly apps have been appearing in the first few weeks of the G1’s availability.

If I were Microsoft, I’d consider isolating the WinMo development team from the rest of the campus.  Trying to leverage our familiarity with their desktop software has resulted in a really poor UI, but their email/groupware integration is excellent.  They need to dramatically rethink what a smartphone is — it does a lot of the same things that a computer does, but it isn’t a laptop.  Apple should be wondering whether their “develop your app and we’ll decide whether you can distribute it when you’re finished” approach can stand up to the Android threat.  They need to review their restrictive policies.  RIM has to fight for relevance – as customer loyalty, which they built up with their early email superiority fades, well, didn’t you notice that Palm and RIM the only names in our list that don’t have huge additional businesses to leverage?  And we, the smartphone users, need to see whether supporting Android — which has lived up to a lot of its promise, so far — isn’t a better horse for us to run on, because it’s open and extendable without the oversight of any particular vendor.

* I have to own up that I’m least familiar with Symbian; a lot of my analysis is best guess in this case, based on what I do know.

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.

State of the Smart(phone)

I’ve been using the Palm Treo for about seven years now, ever since the original Treo 300 flip-phone was released. With my most recent two year Sprint contract approaching completion, and some motivation to ditch Sprint, I just took a pretty detailed read of the smartphone market and purchased a new model. I figure that this is worth sharing while it’s meaningful, but this is a market that changes rapidly, so if you’re reading this in 2008, it’s probably obsolete info.

Smartphones come in a variety of flavors:

  • Blackberries
  • Treos (PalmOS or Windows – new variant: the Centro)
  • Windows Mobile phones
  • Apple iPhone
  • Others (Nokia, Symbian).

My requirements were as follows:

  1. A decent voice phone
  2. A real QWERTY keyboard
  3. Push (or automated pull) email from my org’s Exchange server
  4. Access to GMail
  5. A good screen
  6. A Password-keeping application
  7. Third party apps
  8. Some ability to get internet connectivity for my laptop
  9. Not a requirement: small form factor. I actually prefer a decent sized screen and keyboard.

Note that this ruled out the iPhone on two or three counts. The iPhone can only do POP and IMAP email, making it far less capable for Exchange than a Blackberry or phone that supports Activesync (which includes any Windows Mobile device and all current Treos, Palm or Windows). iPhones also have only a soft keyboard, and I spent about an hour trying it out at the Apple store with way too many errors. Since I’m geeky enough to actually write things on my phone, the lack of cut and paste was pretty serious, as well. Finally, no java support and, at the time, no support for third party apps. Jobs announced a turnaround on the last one the day after I bought my new phone, but I’m still happy I steered clear. Maybe in two years the iPhone will be a better choice; for now, only buy it if you are looking more for a music and movie machine than a business phone. It rules for multimedia, yes.

There’s a reason why I’ve stuck with Treos for so long, and the new Centro – which is, essentially, the Treo 755p in a smaller body, is a great deal, particularly if you switch to Sprint to get it at the $99 price. The keyboard is small, but I had no errors testing it. I stayed away for a few reasons: Sprint, who I was trying to ditch; no wifi; and a small, lo-rez screen.

I’m not a Blackberry fan – having supported them at the last two companies I was at, I’m convinced that they’re buggy as all get out. And the push email, which was revolutionary a few years back, feels more and more like a hack, now that Microsoft has Activesync down. While it’s true that Activesync is more of a drain on the phone (it’s not true push; it’s just scheduled pull), it’s pretty seamless. My Earthjustice mail comes right to me, wherever I am. That said, I was pretty intrigued by the Blackberry Curve, and almost sold on the T-Mobile version, which comes with their Hotspot@Home service, allowing you to switch to VOIP (which isn’t charged against your minutes) whenever you’re in wireless range. But I couldn’t get all of the required T-Mobile and Blackberry required plans without upping my monthly bill by about $35 over Sprint, so I passed on it.

I wound up with what I think is the best Windows Mobile smartphone, the T-Mobile Wing (made by HTC, AT&T has something just like it). The Wing has a slide out keyboard, much bigger than the Blackberry or Treo; Windows Mobile 6; Wifi (but not Hotspot@Home); a 2 megapixel camera (very nice) and – this is important – a MicroSD slot that can take the new high density cards. The Curve maxes out at 2GB, but I’m carrying a 6GB card in my Wing. This allows me to copy my 500-600 song playlist to the card and have plenty of spare room for photos and other things.

Two warnings: It is Windows, so I have to reboot daily (I went months without rebooting my PalmOS Treo). it is sincerely Mac-hostile. My main computer is a Macbook Pro. I had to buy Markspace’s Missing Sync in order to sync iTunes playlists with it, and I still have to sync with a Windows machine to install additional applications and sync data in apps that don’t speak Mac. So if you don’t have access to a Windows box, or you don’t want this hassle, stay away from Windows Mobile.

The icing on the cake was that T-Mobile’s unlimited Internet plan (at $20/mo) includes unlimited access at any T-Mobile hotspot, for your phone and/or your computer. This means that, as long as I don’t mind buying Starbuck’s coffee, I have wifi access virtually anywhere I go. That was a killer feature for me.

To sum up, the best deal out there is probably the Sprint Centro. But T-Mobile is the only provider (as far as I can tell) that adds Hotspot access to their data plan. I’m paying about $5/mo more than I was at Sprint for all of the wifi access, and everything else that my Treo did.

I expect that buyer’s remorse will set in the day the Google phone arrives. Rumor or not, it is almost certain that they’ll be announcing a mobile OS, based on Linux, with a suite of java apps as cool as their Maps and GMail for Mobile tools, which are really nice cell phone apps (another gripe: Windows Mobile can do Google Maps, but not GMail. I’m hoping someone will fix that soon. But gmail.com/m works fine). But in markets like these, I figure you have to just buy your phone when you need it, and avoid being too much of a beta tester.