Business-like, isn't he?



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    A tale of two smartphones

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2006 First published in Business in Vancouver 

    September 12-18, 2006; issue 881

    High Tech Office column

    Recently, I noticed two headlines in the same week. One stated that sales of PDAs (personal digital assistants) were plunging. The other proclaimed that PDA sales were booming. Strangely enough, both told the truth.

    The difference?

    The first article looked at traditional PDAs: handheld devices requiring a stylus and using some sort of handwriting recognition. They combine calendars, contact and to-do lists with limited connectivity and are, indeed, seeing falling sales. Companies like Sony and Toshiba have completely withdrawn from the market.

    The second article, however, expanded its definition of PDA. It included devices with calendars and contact lists but also used cellphone networks for voice and data communication: smartphones. And the market for these devices is very healthy, thank you.

    Perhaps the best known of this generation of PDAs come from RIM, the Canadian company that makes BlackBerry handheld devices. The addictive nature of their always-accessible e-mail has led to the nickname CrackBerry.

    Despite their popularity, the very features that make them usable little e-mail stations – screens and keyboards that are relatively large, at least for hand-held devices – have made the classic BlackBerries awkward phones.

    Last year, RIM released the more phone-like BlackBerry 7100. Its slimmer, more phone-like size and shape fit more easily in the hand, but in exchange, it abandoned the qwerty keyboard of its larger brethren for a phone-style keyboard with most keys sharing a pair of letters. Much to my surprise, the built-in SureType software worked well. As you type, the software almost always figures out the word you meant rather than the gibberish it could have been.

    This year, RIM has updated the 7100. The new 7130g ($250 with a three-year Rogers plan) continues to nicely combine comfortable cellphone and usable e-mail and data device. Quad-band and EDGE network support provide international and high-speed connectivity. Improved screen and keyboard brightness automatically adjust for outdoor, indoor or dark environments. New enhancements to the BlackBerry Internet service allow users to access up to 10 business and personal e-mail accounts (including Microsoft Exchange, IBM Domino, and ISP e-mail accounts) on the same device. Like other BlackBerries, the 7130g is all business. You can view e-mail attachments in standard Microsoft Office and Adobe Acrobat formats. But if you want frills like a built-in camera, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

    For instance, there’s Motorola’s new Q smartphone (aka MOTOQ – also $250 with a three-year Telus contract). It follows up on the stylish design of the company’s popular RazR cellphone, packing a tiny but usable full QWERTY keyboard into an ultra-slim and comfortable case. Like the BlackBerries, it offers always-accessible e-mail (including Exchange and Domino access) and, like the BlackBerries, one-handed operation benefits from a scroll wheel and back button on the side.

    In urban areas, MOTOQ can make use of Telus’ EVDO network, offering higher bandwidth than Rogers’ EDGE.

    MOTOQ is one of the first smartphones to be powered by Microsoft’s Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system. This is a bit of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it provides MOTOQ with a strong set of multimedia features. Users can surf the web, watch videos and play music. On the other hand, it can take more steps to do basic operations compared with BlackBerry or Palm-powered devices. And the BlackBerry-like scroll wheel and back button often seem like after-thoughts. They just aren’t as consistently integrated into the user experience.

    Nice features: built-in 1.3 MP still and video camera (with flash) and Bluetooth wireless connection to headphones and other accessories. Not so nice: the Bluetooth connection doesn’t let you use MOTOQ as a wireless modem for a Bluetooth-equipped laptop. Motorola’s Q is more fun than the BlackBerry, but not quite ready to challenge the leader in getting-down-to-businessfunctionality.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan