Commentary: Are Today's Smartphones Really Better Than Handsets from Five Years Ago?

Are today's smartphones really any better than the mobile devices that were available five years ago, before the launch of the iPhone?

If you're the lucky owner of an iPhone 4, a new BlackBerry, or one of the many sexy smartphones running the Windows Phone 7 or Android 2.2 or 2.3 mobile OS, then you'll probably say a big "yes." Large color touchscreens, pleasing user interfaces and a huge range of mobile apps (and games) make today's handsets much more desirable than the museum pieces that were on offer in 2005.

But in the context of the enterprise, do today's smartphones make you any more productive than the ones from the "pre-iPhone" era? In other words, are they better "business" phones? The answer to that is far from clear cut.

Perhaps the most important thing for a phone to do, in terms of productivity, is to allow the user to make and receive calls. And let's face it, there's no discernible difference in quality between the calls you make now and the ones you made five years ago. If anything the reverse is true: even the most ardent Apple fans in cities such as San Francisco and New York would probably admit that they get more dropped calls on their iPhone today than they ever did on their cellphone in 2005.

The other important function of a business cellphone is to let the user send and receive emails on the go, and that was something that BlackBerry and Windows Mobile devices were more than capable of doing. Many veteran BlackBerry users would probably go further than that -- they'll tell you that composing an email on an old-style BlackBerry with a full hardware keyboard was much easier and more accurate in those days -- a vast improvement over the fiddling with the onscreen keyboard that's necessary before you can send an email on most smartphones today.

The new generation of phones are certainly faster when it comes to sending or receiving big email attachments, but that's as much a function of the high speed 3G networks that are now available as the phones themselves. (And in some cities, many iPhone users are probably experiencing slower data rates on AT&T's network than they got five years ago, in any case.)

And let's not forget that your smartphone needs juice to be of any use at all. Many of today's devices struggle to work for eight hours, let alone a full day that includes commuting -- it's not really obvious at all that today's smartphones make mobile workers much more productive at all.

Do mobile apps really make mobile computing more efficient?

But what about the explosion in mobile apps? Surely they must make today's smartphone users more productive? Not necessarily. The App Store and other OS-makers' App Store clones have certainly contributed to the popularity of today's smartphone devices, but many of the business apps themselves are far from revolutionary.

There are plenty of mobile office productivity apps for your smartphone that let you create and edit Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations when you're on the move, but guess what? I seem to remember being able to do all those things on my original US Robotics Palm Pilot back in 1997, and manipulating documents was super easy to do on the Windows Mobile and BlackBerry devices in 2005.

There's more to productivity apps than mobile Office suites, of course, and these days there are enterprise apps from the likes of Salesforce.com and Oracle that let you access your corporate applications and data. But how useful are these, really?

In the days when all employees were given the same device, either a BlackBerry or a Windows Mobile phone, these could have been quite useful. But the truth is that for many organizations the days of mobile operating system homogeneity are over: employee-owned smartphones are all the rage in many companies today, and although a policy of allowing them brings some important benefits to organizations, it also makes it much harder to benefit from enterprise apps that are only available on a limited range of platforms.

Competition is healthy and will ensure that the current crop of smartphone OSes don't stagnate, but too much mobile IT diversity is not necessarily a good thing, which is a polite way of saying that many potentially useful mobile apps are probably only available on the iPhone, and almost certainly not on Windows Phone 7. It's hard to benefit from these sorts of mobile apps if many people in your organization have the "wrong" mobile OS.

But the most compelling argument against many of the mobile apps that modern smartphones run goes along these lines: do you really want to create and edit documents or access your Oracle Enterprise Suite, for example, let alone use your desktop machine remotely, from a three- or four-inch smartphone screen? Of course you don't.

The good news is there's actually a far better mobile device for doing these sorts of tasks when you are on the move, and it's called a laptop. It's been around for years, it has a generous-sized screen and keyboard, and you can use it pretty much anywhere with a data card (or tethered to your phone) and Wi-Fi. It may not be as cutting-edge as an iPhone 4 or Samsung Focus, but it will make you a great deal more productive.

TAGS:

mobile, iPhone, smartphone, mobile apps, mobile os

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