A Guide to Small Business Smartphones

Wednesday Feb 17th 2010 by Joseph Moran
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Finding the best smartphones for your business doesn’t have to be a chore. Our handy guide gives you all the information you need to cut through the multitude of models and conquer carrier confusion.

When it comes to conducting business on the go, smartphones are becoming an increasingly popular supplement — and often alternative — to notebooks. In fact, a recent Gartner Research report predicted that by 2013, there will be more smartphones in use than PCs, making smartphones the most common type of Web access device.

BlackBerry Bold 9000 smartphone screenshot
The BlackBerry Bold 9000.
(Click for larger image)
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Though there’s no standardized definition of what constitutes a smartphone, it’s generally understood to be a phone that also offers Internet access and has the capability to handle tasks that are normally performed on a PC such as accessing e-mail, browsing the Web or viewing and editing documents. In a nutshell, it’s a pocket-sized computer.

Arming your employees with smartphones can give them a real productivity boost, but choosing a one isn’t quite as straightforward as deciding on a desktop or laptop. Read on to learn what factors you should consider before purchasing the best smartphones for your small business.

It’s About the Mobile Network

We’ll get into some phone particulars in a bit, but first, a caveat. New smartphones often generate much anticipation and fanfare, but it’s important to remember that unlike PCs, smartphones aren’t autonomous devices. Rather, they rely heavily on a carrier’s mobile network for connectivity and features. Bottom line — you’re not just buying a phone, you’re buying a network. Before becoming too enamored with a particular smartphone model, you must first consider the coverage and costs of the carrier providing it.

 Nokia E71 smartphone screenshot
The Nokia E71.
(Click for larger image)
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Data Network Coverage and Costs

If you already have conventional mobile phones, your existing carrier is a good place to start exploring smartphone options, because if you have voice coverage it’s a safe bet that you have data coverage too.

On the other hand, you may or may not have access to the fastest kind of data connection, known as 3G (for third generation). A 3G network is an important prerequisite to smartphone use because it provides an Internet connection fast enough to handle tasks like Web browsing, e-mail and file downloads, multimedia streaming, etc.

3G network performance varies — Verizon and Sprint use EV-DO technology, while AT&T and T-Mobile use HSPA — but it’s generally in the range of 400 kbps to 1 Mbps (or more) for downloads, compared to around 100 kbps for non-3G connections. While you can make do without a 3G connection in some cases, without one, your thumbs will likely spend more time twiddling than typing.

Of the four national carriers, Verizon provides the widest 3G coverage (in terms of geography, not necessarily population), followed by Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile. Regardless of which  carrier you have or are considering, you’ll want to be sure that 3G is available in your area and anywhere your employees frequently travel.

Each carrier offers coverage maps at their respective Web sites, but the maps don’t always make it easy to distinguish between 3G and ordinary data access, so don’t hesitate to check with the carrier if you’re unsure.

Once you’ve verified the availability of 3G coverage the next step is to consider the cost of data access. While mobile phone voice calling plans tend to be pretty simple — you get x number of minutes a month and pay y for each extra minute used, data plans can be a bit more complicated.

Generally, smartphone data plans range from $30 to $60 above the cost of voice service, but prices vary depending on the type of device, how much data you plan to transfer each month (lower cost plans with transfer caps are often available) and the added services you want, such as text messaging (SMS), push e-mail service or tethering. (More on these last two in a moment.)

 Palm Pre smartphone screenshot
The Palm Pre/ Pre Plus.
(Click for larger image)
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Note that many — though not all — smartphones provide Internet connectivity via Wi-Fi, and until recently, budget-conscious customers often had the option to buy a smartphone without a data plan, opting instead to use wireless hotspot access as needed. Now, however, all the major carriers require smartphones to carry a data plan for the customary two-year contract period. (Data plans typically include access to carriers’ hotspot networks, when available.)

E-mail Access Anywhere

If you’re considering smartphones for your organization, chances are that mobile access to e-mail is a major reason why. Virtually all smartphones let you access multiple personal or business e-mail accounts on demand, but if you want employees to be able to receive e-mail on their smartphones as quickly as possible, you’ll want to consider push e-mail service.

This will automatically “push” new messages to the smartphone as they’re received, as opposed to requiring the user to “pull” them in by checking e-mail manually, or configuring the phone to check for new messages at scheduled intervals. (Due to the need for judicious use of battery power, keeping a smartphone continually connected to the Internet isn’t feasible.)  

RIM’s BlackBerry smartphone in particular is known for push e-mail support (RIM pioneered the technology), though it is available in some form on many other smartphones as well.  

Tethering

Put simply, tethering lets you use your smartphone as a wireless modem, and it’s a handy way to ensure a laptop has Internet access in areas where Wi-Fi isn’t available. Not all phones support tethering, however, and as mentioned earlier, you can expect to pay extra for it.  

 HTC Touch Pro 2 smartphone screenshot
The HTC Touch Pro 2.
(Click for larger image)
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In addition, data plans that allow tethering tend to cap access at 5 GB a month. Exceeding the limit — well within the realm of possibility for heavy users — will trigger added charges (usually in the neighborhood of a nickel per megabyte). 

Smartphone Operating Systems and Ergonomics

Unlike the PC world, no single operating system has an overwhelming share of the smartphone market (at least, not in the U.S.) The major smartphone operating systems are Google’s Android, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile (recently renamed Windows Phone), RIM’s BlackBerry, Palm’s WebOS, Symbian (co-developed by Nokia and primarily used by that company’s smartphones), and of course, there’s the Apple iPhone.

Detailing the differences between the various smartphone platforms is beyond the scope of this guide, but suffice it to say that each offers a somewhat different look and feel, set of features, and built-in applications. All but the iPhone offer multitasking (the capability to run multiple programs at the same time). 

Each platform offers an online store to browse and download new programs (many free), but Apple’s provides the widest selection by far. Most smartphone “apps” tend to be more consumer- than business-oriented, but there are plenty of productivity- enhancing examples as well.  

Smartphones come in many shapes and sizes, with ergonomics that are largely a matter of personal preference. Still, two of the most important physical factors to consider are the size and type of display and the style of keyboard.

 Droid smartphone screenshot
The Motorola Droid .
(Click for larger image)
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Smartphones with large, touch-enabled displays such as the Apple iPhone or Google’s Nexus One make navigating the device’s features — not to mention browsing the Web — relatively easy. On the other hand, most such smartphones rely on “virtual” on-screen keyboards that aren’t as conducive to extended periods of typing as actual buttons.

Smartphones with physical keyboards generally make for speedier, more precise and more comfortable typing, but the real estate they require necessitates smaller screens that typically aren’t touch-enabled.   

A few smartphone models, like the Palm Pre and Motorola Droid, give you the best of both worlds — a large touch screen and a slide out portrait (the Pre) or landscape (the Droid) keyboard — often at the price of a slightly thicker phone.  

Additional Smartphone Tips

Remember, we recommend that you choose a carrier before choosing a phone, but when considering a particular smartphone, be aware that many are exclusive — albeit usually temporarily — to specific carriers. The iPhone, currently available only on AT&T, is a good example.

Also, smartphones sold by carriers are typically built to an individual carrier’s specifications, so two seemingly similar devices from different carriers may have considerable differences; features available on one may be omitted (or at least rendered inactive) on another.

Also, AT&T and T-Mobile’s network’s use SIM-based GSM technology, which gives you the option to purchase an “unlocked” phone that’s not on the carrier’s device menu. Be advised, though, that unlocked phones can be quite expensive since they lack the carrier’s price subsidy; the cost of subsidized phones usually ranges from $50 to $250, while an unlocked phone can easily cost $500 or more.   

Smartphones represent a major investment, and it’s important to remember that the capabilities and costs ultimately have as much to do with the network as with the device itself. But they also can be important productivity tools, keeping remote employees in the loop and allowing them to get real work done from just about anywhere. 

A Sampling of Smartphones

Model Operating System Carrier(s)
Touch Screen/
Keyboard
Nokia E71
Symbian AT&T, T-Mobile (unlocked) No/Yes
Palm Pre/Pre Plus WebOS Sprint, Verizon Yes/Yes
BlackBerry Bold 9000 BlackBerry AT&T No/Yes
HTC Touch Pro 2 Windows Phone Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile Yes/Yes
Motorola DROID Android Verizon Yes/Yes

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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