Reader’s revenge: iPhone vs. BlackBerry revisited

In comparing the RIM BlackBerry Bold to the Apple iPhone 3G, after a month-long test of each, I declared that it was time to bury the Blackberry, as it was mediocre in its signature mail functions and pathetic in next-gen mobile capabilities such as Web browsing and applications.

I got many heated replies, such as this one from reader Mortys11 (a comments handle, as with the other names cited): “Who is this guy? He must be on the Apple payroll because any tech writer with half a brain would never claim that the BlackBerry is an inferior e-mail device.”

(Sorry, I do not work, and have never worked, for Apple. I do use a Mac, but until Vista I had used Windows XP.) Smalpre says, “I would have to declare the writer of this article a completely incompetent nontechnical person that obviously has never had a ‘real job’ in IT.”

If security and compliance is an issue, the iPhone is out of luck

But there were also rational objections, centered around the iPhone’s fit, or lack thereof, in an enterprise setting where data security and policy management was essential, such as for regulated companies.

Reader Amadc summarizes that sentiment: “I agree the iPhone is excellent and outshines the current RIM offering in many ways but until central management and security are on par with BlackBerry devices, the iPhone will never take hold in the enterprise. The BlackBerry can’t be buried, there is nothing to take its place. As much as some would like it to be replaced with the iPhone, it’s not feasible right now.”

Reader MobileAdmin also emphasized the security and management issues critical to many in IT: “BES [BlackBerry Enterprise Server] provides total control and policy to enforce whatever security you want no matter how granular. iPhone has a small subset of Exchange ActiveSync, period. It’s like BES circa 2002.”

Smalpre gives a detailed criticism of what the iPhone lacks that BlackBerry (and Windows Mobile) do provide to corporate IT: “No enterprise management solution exists. This is okay for a SOHO, but for any business with more than a few hundred users it is unmanageable. No centralized enterprise device encryption products that meet HIPAA, SOX, SEC, or any other form of compliance requirements. In other words I cannot prove beyond my word that a device is encrypted if it is stolen and contained sensitive information. This leaves most U.S. corporations liable to hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and potential jail time.”

No arguments there, and I did acknowledge this in my review. I just wonder if these standards are enforced on laptops, thumb drives, and other devices. My reporting says that more often than not, they’re not enforced, but of course that doesn’t mean a failure on conforming to policy on those devices should permit a poor implementation policy on mobile.

Smalpre adds that there is “no self-destruct mechanism if a lost or stolen device is activated. [For a BlackBerry,] we can send a kill signal that will wipe the device and render it as useful as a brick forever. The device can only be restored to functionality and service by the company that owns it. There is not reset, no reformat. It is dead to the thief and useless to a pawn shop.”

Furthermore, Smalpre says, “No imaging or standards solution exists for iPhone. We can plug any of our blackberry or Windows Mobile devices into a controller and instantly load a company standard of software and features. This lowers support costs. We can allow and disallow particular functions and features from a central management console controlling what is called a desired state. In other words, we can say a machine can only have a proven stable configuration and deny unauthorized ‘freeware or software’ that may compromise reliability. We can remotely backup data and information for users which makes turn around for replacement or damaged devices quicker and practical because it also restores it to the last state a user had their device. Let’s see you do that with an iPhone.”

User interface: Is GUI the wrong standard?

Many readers also complained about my complaints on the BlackBerry’s user interface, especially around e-mail. I bemoaned the many manual steps, unintuive settings, and message clutter that I suffered from.

Reader Ha Inc chastises me: “Galen points out how the iPhone has all the normal e-mail actions such as reply and forward with their own dedicated buttons. I guess he did not bother with keyboard shortcuts such as ‘R’ for reply and ‘F’ for forward. He also claims it is hard to delete messages on the BlackBerry but I guess he did not figure out that the delete button deletes messages.”

For the record, I did use the shortcuts (and gave BlackBerry credit for having them), but the delete key required a confirmation of deletion that ended up being as slow as using the menu command. Turning off confirmation in preferences did not affect the delete key’s requirement for confirmation, just the menu option’s requirement. To my mind that’s just bad UI.

And it’s true that you can tweak lots of settings on the BlackBerry to reduce some of its obnoxious defaults, like keeping e-mail you moved to a folder in the main inbox as well. But the real issue to my mind is that memorizing dozens of key commands for functions is not intuitive or easy — most people stopped using command-line interfaces in the mid-1990s, and while shortcuts are alive and kicking, they work best as alternatives to — not replacements for — GUI interfaces that have been long the norm in Windows, Mac OS, and even Linux. Why would a smartphone adopt an obsolete UI approach?

Reader MobileAdmin has an interesting response to that question: “Everyone gets caught up in Blackberry the device and that is not what makes it so popular in enterprise. It’s the BES back end that makes it all work and provide the management, security, and functionality. Sure the device UI could be better but at heart it’s an e-mail/messaging client, and last I checked e-mail clients weren’t too sexy.It’s all about getting work done. … At heart, the iPhone is yes an iPod that is e-mail-capable. It’s a totally different device serving a different type of user.”

That argument makes sense to me, but then I would suggest RIM stop adding features like Web browsing and applications that it can’t do well, and actually focus on the BlackBerry’s strength. If you can’t be as good as an iPhone in those other areas, why pretend to be?

But I was struck by a later comment that MobileAdmin makes: “Smartphones are not meant to carry around your entire mailbox. Think reply/process/delete and it will work better for you.”

In my review, I had complained that when I reconciled my e-mail box, I got 9,000 archived messages dumped into the BlackBerry, all with a curent date and time. (I thought I would just get the last 30 days of messages downloaded for easy offline access, given that I had set preferences to download only e-mail 30 days old or newer.) MobileAdmin’s comment suggests that even where the BlackBerry’s core stength is (e-mail), its usage is just as a supplementary device when you’re not at a real computer.

That begs the question: Are mobile devices evolving into companion computers that we can rely on to do much of our work (clearly not all)? I think the iPhone is trying to go that direction, and that may be a direction that many in IT believe is wrong or foolish.

Reader Dragon77 picks up the same theme that expecting a mobile device in a business context to be like a computer is unwise. He cites my complaints over the BlackBerry’s browser: “With the BlackBerry Web browsing, I recommend downloading Opera it works better than the Browser app on the BlackBerry. Granted, it’s not included by default, so yes kudos to Apple’s Web browser. But in a corporate environment I use the Web two to three times a month for looking up music lyrics or Google a news topic.”

So for Dragon77, the iPhone’s Web savvy is not very relevant in a business setting.

Reader NuffSaid strongly objects to my critiques of BlackBerry applications, which I criticized for being pale, pricier imitations of what was available for the iPhone. He says that if you look at the entire BlackBerry app universe — not just what’s in the BlackBerry App World store — you’ll find competitive, compelling apps as good as what’s available for the iPhone.

Like many in IT, he criticizes Apple’s requirement that you buy apps through the iTunes Store. I’m not sure why this is worse than the BlackBerry’s requirement that you buy apps through a PayPal account. And NuffSaid said I was unfair to complain about RIM’s lack of a desktop BlackBerry App World store because many apps were available from their vendors’ Web sites. Fair enough, but how do I find them or know they exist?

Reader Smalpre criticizes the iPhone’s approach to letting enterprises develop custom apps: “Our in-house software developers have developed custom sales and workflow automation software that allows our personnel to make multimillion dollar deals and submit orders to manufacturing from their mobile devices. They can even track the progress of every single order in real time along the assembly line anywhere in the world from anywhere in the world while monitoring and updating information in SAP.”

Well, you can develop custom enterprise apps for the iPhone, and not have to distribute them over iTunes. That’s been true since July 2008. But you can only install those apps by physically connecting an iPhone to a PC or Mac that has Apple’s iPhone configuration utility installed. And I agree that’s a dumb move on Apple’s part.

NuffSaid also points out that I hadn’t discovered the BlackBerry’s themes, which would have given me a more integrated view of my applications than the default “Zen” view. That’s a fair comment.

“There are also today themes that can show a number of combinations on the home screen such as calendar events, new mail, sms and MMS messages (the iPhone can’t send MMS, by the way), etc. There are also themes called icon themes that give the user a more ‘unified interface,’ as you put it, just like the iPhone. This is all designed to allow the user the ability to customize their experience to their liking. To understand or view more, simply do a google search for ‘blackberry themes.’ This would have taken only a few seconds for anyone really trying to do research on a subject and allowed them to write a more informed article.”

Thanks for the tip. But how would I have known these existed? They weren’t in the manual or in the online docs or in the BlackBerry UI. I don’t understand why I have to know the secret handshakes to use the device more easily. Why are obscure, arcane UIs considered a positive by so many in IT?

Finally from NuffSaid is a criticism that you can’t create folders on the iPhone to manage your apps, as you can on the BlackBerry. That’s correct, and I wish I had said it.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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