Navigating mobile phone options

by Poppy Lochridge — last modified May 31, 2011 12:00 AM

Cell phones have come a long way since the Star Trek communicator-like flip phones of the 1990s - modern smartphones now do email, SMS, instant messaging, web browsing, Twitter, Facebook, and many more applications. At the same time that the functionality of phones is increasing, the sea of possible phone options is also swelling, and the nonprofit techie must don a Captain’s hat to navigate all of the different types of phones and make them work in your office. Here’s a short primer on smartphones, and some tips on which ones work best in various situations - so that when the next person comes to you and mentions that their phone contract is almost up and they’re thinking about getting something new, you’ll have some advice that will make their transition easier.

Apple’s iPhone - Available from AT&T or Verizon

Apple’s iPhone came out strong as one of the first popular multimedia smartphones, beating the range of Android phones to the market by about a year. It works well with all email servers, including Microsoft Exchange, although organizations using Google Apps for their email may find that configuring the iPhone for their email is not intuitive.

iPhone users looking for multimedia - photos, videos, and music - will be pleased with their phone, because, of course, Apple designed the iPhone off of the iPod and the iTouch. The iPhone synchronizes with the user’s computer via USB cable and the iTunes software, so if your staff wants their business contacts on their phone, they will need to install iTunes onto their office computer and synchronize with Outlook or transfer their Outlook contacts to another location to be synchronized onto their phone. Watch for iTunes music libraries being stored on network drives - if other people have access to those network folders (such as the Users folder on your server), this may be in violation of the copyright on those music files.

Criticism leveled at the iPhone tends to be regarding three things: the paucity of providers (Verizon started offering the iPhone only earlier in 2011), the tight control Apple keeps over what apps are available to iPhone users, and highly publicized design flaws, such as poor antennas.

Droid and other Android phones - Available from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and more

Android phones are the up and coming challenger to Apple’s iPhone. One of the top selling points to Android phones is the variety of models. Google purchased the base of the Android software in 2005 and developed an open-source mobile operating system from it, which means that several mobile developers have been able to use the system for their own devices. Unlike the iPhone, it is not restricted to one or two phone providers, but nearly every provider with a contract plan offers at least one Android phone, and an Android pre-paid phone is coming soon from Boost Mobile.

For users who have an in-house Exchange server, Android phones started out sluggish, requiring these users to purchase a $30 third-party app to synchronize email, contacts, and calendar with these phones. However, later models have caught up, and Android phones running version 2.2 or later seem to work just fine with Exchange servers.

Android phones require a Gmail account to link to, and if you do not have one when you purchase a phone, you will be prompted to set one up before leaving the store. Organizations using Google Apps can use the built-in Google tools on the Android phones to good effect, provided the phone is configured correctly right away - failing to configure correctly at the store will require a reset of the phone to resolve.

Android devices now also include tablets, available both in cellular network editions and wi-fi editions - one requires a monthly network plan, the other only requires access to a wireless network connection. These tablets do almost everything the phones can, except place phone calls, on a larger screen.

The preinstalled apps on an Android phone vary depending on the phone provider - some apps, such as Gmail and Google Calendar, are standard on all of them, but each vendor adds their own apps. The biggest criticism leveled at Android phones tends to be regarding these preinstalled apps - in several cases, they cannot be removed, although a replacement can often be found in the Android Market.

Blackberry - Available from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and more

Research in Motion (RIM)’s Blackberry has a long-standing history with text applications like email and messaging. Blackberry smartphones have been on the market since 2002, although from the beginning, they have been in the hands of busy executives with in-house IT staff to handle the necessary software. And software there is - traditionally, Blackberries sync with Microsoft Exchange servers as well as some larger and more complex business productivity servers though a plugin software installed on the mail server. This software can be purchased at several different levels, from the free one-user edition to a more expensive multi-user version. Blackberry phones also work with internet (POP or IMAP) email through a control panel on the web and synchronize via cable with Outlook.

Blackberry is still catching up with other smartphone makers in multimedia, in keeping with Blackberry’s history serving business users. This is not the phone for people who want music or movies, but a good phone for people whose primary use will be phone calls and emails. Blackberry’s calling card is the built in keyboard - real keys, not touchscreen - making typing a tad easier for people new to smartphones.


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