The iPhone and Android phones are pecking away at BlackBerry market share like vultures on roadkill, especially within the walls of the enterprise.
New BlackBerry phones and an improved BlackBerry OS 7, along with a promising, consolidated platform in BBX, and even an Apple-esque leak about a new phone (code-named London) are not enough to satiate end users lured by new mobile apps, and swayed by a massive cultural shift. Even Windows Phone 7 is gaining some momentum, thanks to a compelling user experience and a healthy and growing list of apps.
Corporate IT is finally changing its stance on a BlackBerry-centric mobile world. Or as InformationWeek's Eric Zeman recently proclaimed: "iPhone Ousts BlackBerry From Boardroom, iPass Says."
It's time, therefore, to take a closer look at the contenders to replace the BlackBerry. For several weeks, I've been testing the iPhone 4S (AT&T), Google's Android (Gingerbread version) running on a Samsung Galaxy SII (a T-Mobile version and one from AT&T,) and Windows Phone 7.5 running on an HTC Radar 4G (T-Mobile) and the Nokia Lumia 800 (not available in the U.S. yet).
I tried to truly use each phone on a daily basis, rather than spend my time pouring over specs and trying every feature. In other words, this comparison focuses on the usability and practicality of each platform. In fact, there are many useful features that I found and couldn't find room for in this comparison. I hope readers will share some in our comments section as well.
I am, in fact, a BlackBerry user through and through. I've been using one for the past several years, occasionally testing some of the other platforms. I've recently switched my full-time smartphone allegiance to the iPhone 4S, thanks to a loosening of corporate IT policy at InformationWeek's parent company, TechWeb.
I tried my best to mimic phone experiences across all platforms. That's a bit harder than it would seem, given that many of the underlying services--notifications, location-based services, social network integration, and so on--differ. I set them all up to use WiFi, GPS, mobile networks, and a common set of applications.
Smartphone choice comes down to a handful of items: design, overall user experience, applications available, enterprise support and security, and a grab-bag of other features--including camera, cloud services, voice-activated services, and performance issues such as browser speed.
There's one more thing: Some buyers care greatly about notions of openness--the ability to run whatever apps they want, to use a phone on any network, to customize the phone without limitation. Other buyers just want the most simple, flawless experience, and don't wish to deviate from the pre-set choices. Neither is wrong, it's just a personal decision; and truth be told, some people don't even know that it's a choice they can make.
In this regard, Apple and Google sit on opposite ends of the spectrum, one controlling everything from the phone to the OS to the apps (Apple), with the other creating a somewhat-open OS that runs on many phones with a fairly accessible application ecosystem (Google). Microsoft sits somewhere in between, choosing not to manufacture phones (for now), but creating fairly tight rules about the hardware its OS runs on.
These are difficult decisions, especially since most people need to live with the choice for two years (the length of most standard carrier contracts); within those two years, everything changes again in dramatic fashion.
You can't go wrong with any of these platforms, from an end user point of view. I chose the iPhone for now because it marries my personal and professional worlds in ways that no other platform can quite match. But Android is damn close, and with Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0), it may indeed overtake iOS. In fact, if the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is an even better version of the Samsung Galaxy SII, I may wish I had waited to make my final choice. And in another year, as Nokia and other manufacturers keep making better hardware for Windows Phone 7, and as Microsoft continues to improve its OS with the Apollo release, I may regret my choice yet again.
But such is the way with the mobile wars.
The best-designed phone in this bunch is, by far, the Samsung Galaxy SII. Despite sporting a whopping 4.52-inch display, it is one of the thinnest, lightest phones I've ever used. (Now imagine that phone with more curves and contours, slightly bigger but just as light and thin, running a vastly improved OS and that is--I'm told--the Samsung Galaxy Nexus running Android 4.0.) I tested the Samsung Galaxy SII on AT&T and T-Mobile, and the experience was phenomenal. It's even a good size for watching video content on Netflix. Capturing video at 1080p is also pretty sweet.
Many Android manufacturers add their own interface and other doo-dads to the phone, and Samsung is no exception. There is plenty to like in TouchWhiz (easy-to-create shortcuts, customizable panels, a carousel of screens to rotate through, customizable app drawer), but it doesn't really get in the way. The Samsung Media Hub is fairly typical, but getting live content is pretty sketchy--it's never what I want, like a live NFL football game.
The iPhone 4S design looks just like the iPhone 4, of course, but the camera (8 MP) is far superior. The dual-core processing also makes everything that much faster. But most of the magic here is with iOS 5 and Siri. More on that shortly.
The Windows Phone 7 phones look fairly basic. The HTC Radar 4G has a 3.8-inch WVGA LCD capacitive touch screen with 800 x 480 pixel resolution, and runs on a single core 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. It's small and light (but still a tad heavier than the Samsung), with an aluminum body and white finish. It can record 720p video, has a 5 MP rear facing camera and a 1.0 MP front facing one. I liked the panoramic photo capability.
The Nokia Lumia 800 is also stylish in all black. Sleek and simple. It is a 3.7-inch device, also with 800 x 480 pixel resolution, and running a 1.4GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. While it has an 8 MP rear-facing camera, it is missing a front facing camera. It includes Nokia Drive (free, voice guided navigation, and also in 3D map mode) and Nokia Music. Nokia has also said it is working with ESPN on a Sports Hub. The missing front-facing camera is a bit of a deal killer, but otherwise the phone performed remarkably well.
There is life beyond user interface, but this is where you live every day. Even in the brief weeks of testing, I got used to all three operating systems, and could see myself becoming zealous about each of them. But I'll use the broader concept of user experience, which, for my money, also includes the features that come with these platforms. It's also worth noting that for Android much of this is about to change when Android 4.0 arrives--shortly, and presumably on all modern Android-based smart phones.
iOS 5 included a host of improvements, but none of them fundamentally change how the operating system works. Apps are the central model of iOS, and that's as Apple wants it. In iOS 5, Apple has made notifications less pesky, so instead of popping up on screen to be read or dismissed, they can be controlled, pop up unobtrusively, or viewed all at once in the notifications center. I like how text messages, for example, appear at the top of the screen, where I can read them before they disappear into the app and the notification center.
The same happens in Windows Phone 7 to some degree, but there's not the same notion of a notification center. In fact, some apps--take ESPN's Sports Center--don't seem to have a mechanism by which to notify users of key in-game stats, for example, which is a central tenet of the app on iOS. With both Android running on Samsung and iOS on the iPhone, a simple swipe down from the top of the screen brings up everything from Facebook notifications to Twitter mentions to e-mail to upcoming calendar appointments, and even a history of your latest downloads (on Android). On Android on the Samsung, the notification center also gives you quick access to functions like WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS and so on.
Notifications are an important part of the phone experience because they give you quick access to what is likely most important, rather than having to use various methods of finding apps and hunting for what's new.
Windows Phone 7 provides a way to filter what's most important into its live tiles on the home screen, which is where the majority of the user experience happens. Those tiles are the major apps, like e-mail, messaging, social services, the phone, music, games and so on, plus any other app users may want to "pin" to the live tile menu. I happen to like a more spartan approach here; while I could add as many as 30 live tiles, anything beyond 10 or 15 just becomes unwieldy. The tiles are live in that when you have a new e-mail, it's apparent that it's there. A weather tile actually shows the weather, a calendar tile shows your next appointment, pictures scroll through the pictures tile. Some tiles provide more "live" data than others.
Android takes this a step further with widgets--a thin version of an app sprawled across the display, showing actual content where applicable--say the newest entry in your Facebook news feed, or the latest Twitter post. In this sense, then, these phone systems are evolving from an application-centric world to an information-centric one. I'd like to see this go further.
Windows Phone 7, for example, attempts to create an experience that is more about the action you take than the app you're trying to access. The "People" tile, for example, isn't just a contact card, but one from which you can take action (text, call, e-mail, call up a map to that person's address), or view some contact history (your last message exchange, the person's latest social network status update, pictures). The "Me" live tile provides not only all of your information (you know, in case you forgot), but also some of your social notifications.
Both Windows Phone 7 and Android provide ways to bring together all of your social and real connections into many phone experiences. For instance, when dialing a contact (you know, for a real phone call) in Android, I could see some of my recent communications with that contact; same for Windows Phone 7. Not so much for the iPhone. On Windows Phone 7, you can also create groups of important people in your social network and create a live tile of just them.
Much has been made about the overall user experience of Windows Phone 7. Beyond the live tiles, there's a fairly simple, serial list of all of your applications, organized alphabetically. You can scroll endlessly, search for an app by name or letter. It's not THAT hard, but there aren't the organizing mechanisms of Android or iOS. For Android, you can create five screens worth of apps…on the Samsung Galaxy SII a single touch of the screen will make your five screens into a revolving carousel, and you can jump between the default interface customized with your favorite apps, or an app-centric approach to scroll through. Again, not THAT hard, and as with iOS you can folder-ize common applications in a way that makes sense--all your banking apps, or your health-related apps, for instance.
The next big thing appears to be voice-assisted phone access, both for hands-free capability while driving and just for convenience. Android has had voice-enabled search for a while and there are third-party applications, like Speaktoit, but none of this quite compares to Siri, new to iOS 5. Siri is a fundamental change in the way users view their phones--in fact, it turns the phone into more of a set of services, than simply a place from which to store and run applications. Ask it to play a song, search the web, find directions, make a call, reply to texts, create messages--Siri does it all, and with remarkable accuracy. Compared only with voice-assisted search on Windows Phone 7 and Android, Siri's accuracy seems light years ahead.
But it's not perfect. Siri is still a work in progress, and it needs to broaden out its scope beyond a handful of services; in fact, when developers are finally given access, that's when Siri will truly start to shine. Until then, however, it's still a pretty compelling reason to buy an iPhone.
While we're at it, Facetime is, for now, another compelling reason to buy an iPhone. The video chat service works across Macs running Apple's latest OS (Lion), and iOS 5 (on the iPhone and the iPad). I say "for now" because once Microsoft makes Skype available on all platforms (it isn't yet available on Windows Phone 7), it will become the cross-platform video chat service of choice. I'm sure Google (with Hangouts in Google Plus) will have something to say about that as well. Meanwhile, services like WebEx and Fuze provide enterprise-level video conference capabilities.
What about multi tasking--is it "true multitasking" or is it just fast task switching? I'm not entirely sure it matters. Navigation and notification applications, for example, can do things like access location services in the background…while also slowly draining your battery. Music applications like Pandora continue to run while you're reading e-mail, pausing when a phone call comes in. All of the platforms seem to share these capabilities, more or less. Most of them suspend apps that don't require access to phone features when you leave the app. These are good things.
Each OS is tied to a cloud-based structure for accessing documents, photos, music, and more, and backing up all of that data. iOS has iCloud (which is also tied to the Mac OS.). Most Google services (mail, docs, music) are provided via the cloud. Windows Phone 7 uses Windows Live and Skydrive, and once you've set up a free account, all of your information travels with you; today, that means all of your social information but in the future, that could also mean your applications, e-mail settings, and so forth.
Each provider has recognized that data moves between devices (tablets, PCs and phones), and mobilizing that data is imperative. And if you don't like those services, or they don't provide enough functionality, there is also Dropbox, Box.net, SugarSync, and Google Docs. Most of these applications don't yet run on Windows Phone 7, but Microsoft does provide access to Office 365. (Lifehacker has a good iCloud vs Google comparison; Intomobile compares mobile cloud services from Apple, Google and Microsoft.)
Google's next version of Android (4.0, or Ice Cream Sandwich) is a fairly major upgrade, with new features like facial recognition, Beam (for exchanging information,) and a raft of new, improved features and navigation. If you're looking to buy a phone soon, wait for Android 4.0. It sounds that much better. Gizmodo's hands-on review of Ice Cream Sandwich is very useful, as is CNet's comparison of Ice Cream Sandwich and iOS 5.
While Apple, Google, and Microsoft compete on user experience, applications, and great consumer features, enterprise security is a more difficult conversation.
All three vendors provide an app store where application developers upload and distribute apps, but not all app stores are created equal. For example, the Android Market simply requires a Google account and $25 to submit an app. Apple analyzes each app (for unpredictable lengths of time) to make sure it behaves properly. Microsoft actually has the tightest restrictions of all: Not only does it check out apps, but also you must be a registered and validated Microsoft ISV to submit at all. Some reports say that Microsoft runs the apps through various tools to detect security problems.
Despite all of these procedures (or lack thereof,) all three companies have had malware distributed through the app stores.
The main differences come into play once an app is loaded on the phone. The way in which each mobile OS provides sandboxing and permissions, and offers encryption, is unique. With Apple, each application runs in its own sandbox. This type of protection defeats many attacks simply because the app can’t access the sensitive data you protect. But what about all of the shared data, like contacts, phone numbers, or files on the device? Apple’s sandboxing doesn’t protect that, and there have been apps that pilfer contacts.
This is where Google decided to add a bit more security to Android. Google not only uses a sandbox but also prevents what shared data an app can access. Google calls these permissions, and whenever an app is installed, the user has to approve the app’s permissions. You will know before you install an app that it will access your photos, contacts, phone call history, etc. If you don’t think the game you want to install should have access to your phone call history, you can choose not to install the app.
Microsoft took a page from Google. Windows Phone 7 implements a similar approach, but also makes anonymous some shared data that Google doesn’t, such as your phone’s serial ID and phone number. This affords a bit more privacy to the user.
What if the app you are running is meant to deal with sensitive data, such as email or files? Each provider leaves it up to the app to implement encryption; each provides the interfaces for developers to use encryption. Sadly, many developers don’t, because encryption can slow down apps.
When it comes to the files you store on the device itself (for example, files copied from your PC or Mac,) you'll need full device encryption. Apple has had this since it introduced the iPhone 3Gs. Android has encryption only for tablet devices running Honeycomb, and for phones running the soon to be released Android 4.0. Microsoft doesn’t have any device encryption.
Also, while Apple seems to have what many enterprises want for encryption, the problem is that iOS stores the keys for encryption on the phone, making them easily recoverable by an attacker. Thus, Apple's encryption is not enterprise ready. Android does implement device encryption properly, but again, just in Honeycomb.
Oh, and that device encryption? No matter what platform, it won't work without a passcode to lock the device. If you don’t lock the device, encryption doesn’t matter: the mobile OS will decrypt the data for the user automatically.
When it comes to managing the security of these devices, MDM software is at the beck and call of the OS vendor. Because of the way the sandboxing model works, the MDM software must use the APIs available from the OS vendor to get things done--which means if the vendor doesn’t have great support for a feature, such as an encryption, the MDM vendor most likely won’t either.
While Apple has been providing more and more enterprise APIs, Google is catching up and the new 4.0 release will have some good security enhancements for the enterprise. Most of the MDM providers don’t even support the Windows Phone 7 platform and can’t manage it; or if they do, they only provide a couple features, such as remote wipe and enforcing a passcode.
The BlackBerry is still the gold standard here.
In the enterprise setting, you really must use MDM software to implement security on your mobile devices. Doing it by hand using the tools provided by these vendors just isn’t possible. The best thing an enterprise can do is compare features such as self-enrollment, device support, and remote control capabilities, and focus on creating a mobility council to provide planning and deployment of the MDM software.
(Find much more background and advice on MDM in our research report -- free registration is required.)
Depending on your religion (Apple-ism? Android-ism?), the plethora of iOS apps may be reason enough to go with the iPhone. And to be sure, the majority of developers seem to want to target the iPhone as the primary platform of choice for native apps. But Android's dominant market share has also ushered in an explosion of native applications. Or, you may feel that this app abundance is a bit like the insect world, where there are far too many cockroaches among the other harmless critters.
Here's the truth: Most of the applications that you'll use every day are on all three platforms, and if they aren't they will be soon.
For example, on Windows Phone 7 (the newest platform), I found applications for USA Today, Pulse, The Guardian, TechCrunch, Engadget, NPR News, Groupon, CNN Money, CNN News, Bloomberg Live, and several more, just to focus on the news-oriented apps, many of which may well be HTML-based or using a simple feed-based mechanism into an app. Many of my other favorite apps are also available, including Evernote, ESPN ScoreCenter, iHeartRadio, Groupon, and the American Airlines app. Unfortunately, Windows Phone 7 is missing apps like SugarSync, DropBox, and Box.net, along with Hulu+ and Google Docs. It was missing the Wells Fargo banking app, but Bank of America is there. There is no Skype yet, but there is Tango for video chats, which also works on Android. There is Twitter and Facebook, but no Google Plus.
[ Want to avoid Android App stinkers? See 10 Android App Flops. ]
Google has almost all of the apps that I use on the iPhone, including Zeo Sleep Manager, Trapster, iMapMyRide, Whole Foods, Southwest Airlines, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Read It Later, SkyGrid, Seafood Watch, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America--none of these are yet available on Windows Phone 7.
For all of these examples, I'm sure someone will point out the dozens of iPhone apps that are ONLY available on the iPhone. I'm sure it's true. But unless your life revolves around your phone, I have to question how much it matters. I had only a small handful of disappointments on any given platform.
That includes Windows Phone 7. Microsoft said that its Marketplace had 12,000 applications and games in about four months after it launched in the US. The company said that by early this November it had more than 55,000 registered developers, and the developer tools had been downloaded 2.5 million times. New apps are being published into Marketplace at a pace of about 100 new titles each day.
One big quibble I have on Windows Phone 7 is e-mail--an app that probably consumes about half of my phone use: All of my accounts (Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook) live in different tiles, whereas the iPhone and Android each have universal inboxes from which I can access any of my accounts. In fact, on the iPhone and Android, I can choose to see all of my messages all mixed up into one inbox if I like. This feature also exists on the BlackBerry. There is a way in the newest version of Windows Phone 7--a simple menu option that lets you link your inboxes, but it's an all or nothing affair: either they are all linked, or each has its own tile. Sorry, that's not good enough.
Windows Phone 7 and iOS e-mail have ways to let you take a single action (delete, move to a folder, etc) on a series of messages (Android has this in its Gmail app, but not in its main messaging app.) Windows Phone 7 has a nice way of sorting e-mail messages by those flagged, those unread, those marked as urgent and so on. That's pretty nice. iOS and Windows Phone 7 also provide a way to consolidate threads into a single view; Android does not.
Normally, battery life would fall farther down the list, an afterthought in the grand scheme. But as the phone manufacturers and platform providers pack more features into the phone, asking it to be the navigator, the social hub, the music maestro, the e-mail machine and message system unifier, the camera and video recorder, the personal assistant, the omniscient, the all-knower, there will have to be both an evolution in battery technology and an addition of more intelligence to the phone.
That last item is coming, and is evident partly in the Windows Phone 7 devices I tested and in the Samsung Galaxy SII; if Apple would only…let's say "borrow" Samsung's ideas here, the entire BatteryGate mess would fade to the background for a while.
Specifically, users can set Samsung power saver mode automatically when the battery falls below 50% (or at 10%, 30% or 70%.) This will shut down many of the features that drain power, like GPS, BlueTooth, WiFi, and the brightness of the screen. At any time, users can choose to take advantage of each of these features, say turning off the GPS if no application is using it. In contrast iPhone users are incessantly sharing tips in forums, many of which might or might not work. And many of them disable some of the more compelling features of the phone, like location-based reminders. Samsung's feature shuts down features too, but it does so automatically, and during a user-set interlude.
Samsung's software also shows the user data on battery usage, for example how much battery life phone, display, operating system and e-mail have consumed. Drilling into e-mail, for example, displays the amount of CPU utilization and lets the user force stop e-mail.
Windows Phone 7 has a battery saver mode as well (Microsoft doesn't allow alterations to the underlying OS, so these features should be available on any phone.) Power save mode stops the phone from automatically receiving e-mail (the user must ask for manual retrieval), and apps won't run in the background, for example. It's not quite as powerful as what Samsung offers, but it's a good start.
I set up all five phones I tested to be as reasonably close to one another as possible. Because each runs slightly different apps (more on that in a moment), and accesses external services (like location) differently, it's impossible to run a completely evenly matched test. Most of my testing was as close to real world use as I could make it, with all of my e-mail accounts running at full throttle, and various notifications enabled as equally as possible. I ended up eliminating the Nokia Lumia 800 from the testing because it couldn't access a mobile network, only WiFi.
During one quiet weekend day, when all e-mail had ceased, I ran iHeartRadio over whatever cellular connections each phone accessed (in other words, I shut off WiFi) non-stop until battery life was fairly well drained; a simple, if unrealistic test, but after about three hours, the Samsung was down to 10 percent, the HTC Radar was at 25% and the iPhone 4S was at 30%. If anything, the iPhone 4S was busier with other tasks, but it still fared better… and this is a phone that so far has been troubled greatly by BatteryGate; on the other hand, it was also running on AT&T's 3G network, whereas the other two were using T-Mobile's "4G" HSPA+.
In more realistic tests, the iPhone 4S fared much worse. On one particularly busy day in which I made sure to use each phone equally for phone calls (about two hours each), after 14 hours of use, the iPhone 4S was down to 8%. The Windows Phone 7 on the HTC Radar was at 20% and the Samsung Galaxy SII was at 24%. Normally the iPhone drains much quicker, but I only made phone calls and pushed e-mail via ActiveSync on each phone. I may have fetched a web page or two. Had I used the iPhone 4S exclusively, it would have drained in half the time, or even quicker given the volume of phone calls.
Meanwhile, Windows Phone 7 and the Samsung Galaxy SII each kicked into battery saver mode. That may seem a bit unfair to the iPhone 4S, and it probably is. But those are settings turned on by default, and frankly, most users are likely to use them.
As always, your mileage may vary.
If you're looking for ways to improve battery life, there are plenty, including our quick roundup of a few iPhone 4 cases/battery packs. I've been using Mophie's JuicePak, which has doubled battery life, and, frankly, saved me more than a few times.
Put bluntly: Get used to battery challenges. The first vendor to solve this problem will win big.
Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.
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