Tech Talk: Smartphones

Bob Brisky does business on the run. He’s also good at multitasking and picks his tools to match.
Earlier this year, Brisky, who is president of Fingerlakes Construction Co. in Clyde, N.Y., bought a $210,000 crane and hired a new employee while he was attending a board meeting of the National Frame Builders Association in Kansas City.witte.jpg
His secret? Brisky packs a BlackBerry smartphone. It’s small enough to fit in his pocket and powerful enough to enable him to conduct business far from his office and his desktop computer. This marriage of power and convenience is making the smartphone one of the fastest growing technologies in the world today.
“I travel a lot, and I’d be lost without my BlackBerry,” he says. “I carry it with me all the time.”
BlackBerry is a product of Research in Motion or RIM.
Although BlackBerry is the best-known name in smartphones, it faces competition from a dozen or more manufacturers. The leaders in market share are Hewlett-Packard, HTC, Motorola, Nokia, Palm, and RIM, according to Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group of San Jose, Calif., which tracks emerging personal technologies.
The smartphone is a member of a fast-growing category known as hand-held devices, because they are small enough to fit in the hand, a pocket, or a purse. Other members include basic phones, feature phones, and personal digital assistants, also called PDAs.
The basic devices specialize in wireless remote telephone service. They are the least expensive and make up the largest unit volume among hand-held devices, Enderle said. Feature phones are optimized for one or more specialized capabilities, such as games. They generate the most profit per unit, Enderle said. PDAs, which keep track of your calendar and contacts, are in decline because their functions are being incorporated in other hand-held devices. BlackBerry1.jpg
Cellular phones have been around for a long time; what’s new is the multiplication of functions that previously were available only separately. This column will focus exclusively on smartphones, which have become the Swiss army knife of communication. Although smartphones tend to be more expensive than single-function devices, they provide the broadest combination of tools that rural builders are most likely to need on the road. Nevertheless, a rural builder whose needs are limited can save money and complexity by buying a specialized product.
Choosing from among competitive smartphones is only half the battle. To connect the smartphone to the outer world requires a carrier. The leaders in share of market are AT&T, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, and Verizon, Enderle says. He recommends choosing the carrier first, based primarily on its pricing structure and its area of geographical coverage. Carriers generally cluster in two classes: Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM), which includes AT&T and T-Mobile, and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), which includes Verizon and Sprint Nextel.BlackBerry4.jpg
“It’s the carrier that defines the coverage,” Enderle says. “Not every carrier offers every model of phone.”
Enderle rates Sprint Nextel as having the best coverage in the Midwest but credits Verizon with having the most robust network. T-Mobile gets a plug for having the most aggressive pricing for data service such as e-mail and text messages, which usually involve an extra charge, above the price for phone service.
Finally, the buyer also must choose an operating system. The combinations can get complex. For example, Palm offers its smartphone, the Treo 700, with a choice of Windows or Palm operating system. The Windows operating system is available only for Verizon; with the Palm operating system, a buyer can choose either Verizon or Sprint Nextel.
Pricing is even more complex. The Palm Treo, for example, costs $649 by itself, but discounts are available depending on the terms of the carrier’s service agreement.
BlackBerry5.jpgI had a chance last summer to try out both the Palm Treo 700w, which has the Windows operating system, and the 700p, which has the Palm operating system. After a month of comparison, the 700p felt more natural, as if the unit had been designed for the Palm operating system and the Windows operating system had been superimposed on the Treo. For example, the cut-and-paste function, which is provided in only some situations in the 700w, is accessed by tapping the screen and holding the tap. The technique works fine, but it is unlikely to be discovered intuitively.
After coverage, the key issue is ease of use. In a device as small as a smartphone, data entry becomes awkward. The Palm Treo, for example, has been engineered for one-hand operation. The unit provides a qwerty keyboard, but the letters are awfully small. If your fingers feel a bit large for the keys, Palm provides a stylus as a typing alternative. The disadvantage is that the keyboard makes the device a little larger than some of its competitors.
A major consideration for rookies at mobile computing is technical support. Although learning to use a hand-held device is easier than learning to run a computer, you might need more help than the manuals provide. It makes no sense to buy a device as powerful as a smartphone without using all its features. I was impressed with the technical support from Palm, Sprint Nextel, and Verizon. It was prompt, patient, excellent, and free even for the phone call. Just remember to call on a landline when you want help.
Enderle also recommended that buyers consider the range of third-party software. The Treo, for example, has no inherent printing ability. To print from the Treo 700w requires a utility such as ActivePrint from Pocket Watch Software (http://activeprint.pocketwatchsoftware.com). Purchase price is $20 for a single user. A try-out is free. PalmTreo700w.jpg
Some utilities don’t add anything new, but they improve on existing capabilities. For example, IM+ combines the six most popular instant messaging services in one client. It also permits the contact list to be organized into groups and permits use of the same accounts on mobile devices and on the office PC. After a free trial, IM+ is priced at $29.95.
Most utilities cost less than $50. A central source for third-party software is www.handango.com.
The Palm Treo packs a remarkable amount of computing power in a small package. Most noticeable are two old technologies that most users gave up on long ago for personal use: touch screen and voice. They work on the Treo and even seem natural. Say “Call Scott Tappa” into your Treo and you’ll be connected with the editor of Rural Builder if you have entered his name and phone number in your contact list.
Other capabilities of the Treo 700p or 700w or both include e-mail (both sending and receiving), text messaging, instant messaging, word processing with editing, notepad, contact manager that synchronizes smoothly with Microsoft Outlook, an appointment calendar with warnings of the next scheduled event, Internet access, calculator, camera, live television, and a headset that permits hands-free telephoning. The Treo 700p (but not the 700w) can be used as a modem to connect a laptop computer wirelessly to the Internet.
Television on a smartphone is like the story of the dancing bear. The remarkable thing is not that the bear dances poorly but that it dances at all. Only a few broadcast stations are available on the Treo, and the picture is jerky and blocky. You wouldn’t want to watch hockey on it, but it’s amazing to be able to get any kind of television on a smartphone. Reception quality is sure to improve.
PalmTreo700p.jpgThe built-in camera is also interesting. The ability to make still or motion pictures and transmit them is part of a single, smooth process. Picture quality is good enough for display on a computer, and it is improving.
The next big thing in smartphones is likely to be global positioning, which permits satellite navigation. Hewlett-Packard is among the first manufacturers to offer this technology on a smartphone.
Despite all the functions that smartphones pack into a single small device, they still have some shortcomings. Chief among them is the cost of making use of all of their functions. Some costs can be included in the carrier’s pricing plan, but to access some others (such as television) might require an additional fee. Ask the vendor to specify in detail what is included and what costs extra.
One extra that might not seem worthwhile at first is a unique ringtone — the sound that the smartphone makes to alert the user that a call, message, or appointment is forthcoming. In a room where several people have cellular phones, it gets confusing if they all sound the same.
Dropped calls and poor voice quality continue to plague wireless phones, although vendors are aggressively improving transmission quality. Some people prefer the voice quality and reliability of landlines.
Smartphones also are likely to feel a bit claustrophobic at first, although experienced users say they eventually get used to the small screen and tiny keys. Even the brightest screens can be difficult to read in sunlight.
There’s also a protocol for the proper use of wireless phones. Some people get annoyed if phones ring in inappropriate places (like during a church service) or if someone thoughtlessly begins to conduct business (or pleasure) in public.
The technology is moving fast, which actually is good. Brisky already has worn out his first model, which provided a good excuse for him to upgrade to a BlackBerry model 8700c.

Oliver Witte teaches journalism at Southern Illinois University. He was the founding editor of AIA’s Architecture Technology magazine and for several years managed the computer-aided architecture evaluation program for Architecture magazine. Contact him at owitte@siu.edu.

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