Yesterday, Part 2 of our three-parter on the relative merits of the BlackBerry and the iPhone as a business device, focused on applications, discussing the colossal limitations of BlackBerry apps when contrasted with what the iPhone offers.
To be fair, there are two BlackBerry app advantages.
One is the ability to cut and paste text between apps (which the iPhone won’t get until this summer). The second is the ability to open files in zipped attachments (a glaring omission from the iPhone).
Today, Part 3 – the final section of this magnum opus considers how each of these devices performs when it comes to two other capabilities: mobile Web browsing, and location support.
We round off the review with comments on the user interface of the BlackBerry and the iPhone – and how each stacks up against the other.
Web and Internet
Before the iPhone had a wealth of apps, it had a wealth of Web sites, thanks to its Safari browser’s support for most modern desktop Web technology, though Flash support is the big omission.
That means you can view most Web pages on the iPhone, as long as you are willing to zoom in and scroll. But as noted in the previous section, Web-based tools such as Google Docs are a different story.
The BlackBerry also supports desktop Web technologies, so theoretically you can do the same zoom-and-scroll navigation on it.
And although you can emulate different browsers on a BlackBerry, the default settings usually tell Web sites that you are a WAP device (hello, text-only interface), so you have to know to change that too.
Once your BlackBerry is configured to access the Web, you use the built-in Web browser to navigate pages. This is where the BlackBerry’s weaknesses become painfully apparent.
You can only zoom a little bit using the BlackBerry’s navigation button, and zooming back out is a mystery. Consequently, many Web sites remain too hard to browse. Because the BlackBerry comes with none of the standard Web fonts, even zoomed-in Web pages can be hard to read.
The BlackBerry also can’t handle basic Web technologies such as overlapping, hidden DIVs, so many DHTML Web sites are unusable. And filling out HTML forms is exceedingly frustrating, especially compared to the iPhone’s use of standard, easily accessible mechanisms. Even with my reading glasses on, most were lost causes.
The only practical approach to most Web pages is with the BlackBerry’s columns mode, which essentially stacks all the DIVs in a Web page into a single column.
This works, making most DIVs accessible, but it’s like drinking the Web through a straw. Expect to scroll past multiple Web pages of site navigation before you get to the site’s real content. The columns view is a hack, and like all hacks, it’s better than nothing but not a substitute for the real deal.
The bottom line is that the BlackBerry makes mobile Web browsing a painful exercise. You’ll do it only when you have no other choice. No wonder that the iPhone accounts for the vast majority of mobile Web traffic — it’s one of the very few handsets that can actually use the Web.
Both the iPhone and the BlackBerry support GPS location, and the iPhone also can triangulate location based on Wi-Fi signals. The iPhone comes with Google Maps, which can find your current destination, provide directions, and otherwise help you navigate. The BlackBerry requires you to download separate apps to do so.
As noted earlier, the top-rated BlackBerry navigation app is a real pain to use: no turn-by-turn directions, great difficulty in navigating the map, and a UI more interested in issuing confirmation dialogs than providing results. Honestly, I can’t see myself using it. Even though I’m a guy, I think I’d break down and ask someone for directions before trying to work with it again.
The iPhone’s integration of location is more pervasive than the BlackBerry’s, so you see it in many App Store apps, from a “find my car” app to “tell me the nearest train station.” A common “find me” icon works across location-aware apps, and the ability to pan and zoom through maps makes it easy to see where you are, follow the recommended directions, and explore alternatives.
There’s also decent integration between Google Maps and the iPhone’s Contacts app, so you can select a friend’s name to have his address entered automatically. (Oddly, you can’t edit the contact information in Contacts if you access it via Google Maps.)
The BlackBerry also had trouble finding its bearings via GPS in any location-aware app; often it could not get a location at all. And it often took several minutes (yes, minutes — try that while driving) to get the positions for those times when it could. I can’t blame AT&T for this — the iPhone uses the same network and could situate itself in mere seconds.
BlackBerry users don’t seem to like touch keyboards, which the iPhone depends on. I became equally adept at writing e-mails on both devices, though it took me a couple of weeks to get up to speed on the iPhone’s screen-based keyboard compared to a few days on the BlackBerry.
Colleagues who’ve migrated from the BlackBerry to the iPhone also say it took them a while, and some are never as fast on the iPhone as on the BlackBerry.
Both keyboards have their issues. Typing numbers and special symbols on the BlackBerry can result in hand-wrenching positions, and you really do need to use both thumbs, due to how the Shift key works. Entering numerals with regular text is particularly a pain. I also can’t read the symbols on the BlackBerry keyboard without my glasses. The iPhone works best when tapping with one thumb, though I still have trouble with Q, W, O, and P, due to the optical illusion as to their location caused by the glass.
For the rest of the UI — the screen size, the navigation, and option selection — the BlackBerry is torture. That little roller ball is hard to control precisely. The menus can be difficult to scroll through.
Everything just takes longer to do.
Apple’s UI is elegant and easy. Its use of mouse-like touch navigation coupled with the use of gestures makes it easy to delete items, select multiple items, scroll, and enlarge and shrink screens. Its use of a consistent set of input controls for dates, lists, and so on lets the UI become second nature quickly.
On a BlackBerry, the screen is hard to read, hard to navigate, hard to zoom, and often covered by the menus. The UI for input controls is inconsistent at best. Clearly little to no thought has been brought to the BlackBerry UI; it’s just a Frankenstein collection of methods developed in isolation from each other.
Apple’s real UI advantage is not the touch interface (though it works wonderfully in a graphical environment), but something less tangible. It’s the well-thought-out, consistently implemented UI that makes the iPhone unmatched.
In other areas, the iPhone’s rotation ability and its use of accelerometer for motion detection allow uses — some silly, some practical — the BlackBerry can’t even dream of.
As for the devices themselves, I found myself accidentally pushing the BlackBerry’s camera button a lot, and the lack of autolock for the keyboard meant that I often had my address book or other function active when I took it out of my pocket. The iPhone’s buttons aren’t so easily pressed by mistake, and its easily set autolock prevents accidental 911 calls and address book edits.
Where the BlackBerry wins
There are three considerations that might legitimately lead a company to choose a BlackBerry as its mobile platform, despite all its inferiorities.
One is security.
Although Apple provides more iPhone security capabilities than most people realize, it still doesn’t have the depth of messaging and device security that the BlackBerry does.
Organizations running BlackBerrys can trust that both the data in transit and the data stored on the devices is secure. If a BlackBerry is lost, IT can wipe all of its data and render it useless over the air.
Of course, most organizations don’t actually need that level of security, nor do they apply it to other devices such as laptops and employees’ home access. But if you really do follow defense or health-care industry security practices, the iPhone isn’t up to snuff yet, not even with third-party add-ons.
Another is use of an e-mail platform other than Exchange 2007. Apple has tied itself closely to Exchange 2007, for user management, information integration, and even security (Exchange is the only way to blank a lost or stolen iPhone, for example). If you use Notes or GroupWise, your iPhones must be managed as Web clients.
The third is the lack of keyboard.
All the BlackBerry users I know love their physical QWERTY keyboard. Yes, the touch keyboard works just fine for non-touch-typists like me, but different people work well with different UI methods. So Apple should allow the development of a plug-in or Bluetooth keyboard to satisfy that need. It could even make a model that has it built in — as long as the screen is not shortened to make room (call it the iPhone Tall).
Apple could easily close all three gaps if it chooses. RIM will have a much harder time addressing the BlackBerry’s fundamental deficits. Its iPhone-copying attempts so far — the BlackBerry Storm and App World — reveal that RIM fundamentally doesn’t get it and is well on its way to becoming the Lotus Notes of mobile.
The fourth reason to choose a BlackBerry is because you really don’t want employees to use the Web or apps from a mobile device. If that’s your agenda, the BlackBerry will ensure you succeed.
For everyone else, the BlackBerry is yesterday’s mobile messenger, way past its prime and heading toward retirement.
The iPhone is light-years ahead of the BlackBerry on almost every count.
RIM should be ashamed.