Deathmatch: BlackBerry versus iPhone

Editor’s Note: This article is reprinted from InfoWorld. For more IT news, subscribe to the InfoWorld Daily newsletter.

Look at any major analyst firm report since the Apple iPhone was released, and you'll see the earnest intoning to stick with the buttoned-down and pinstriped BlackBerry—widely admired in executive corridors for its safety and security—and beware that odd, colorful, possibly dangerous Apple device that consumers may love but professionals should avoid. If the iPhone were meant for work, it wouldn’t be so much fun to use, would it?

Yes, it was Mac versus PC all over again: The iPhone was quickly pigeonholed as a fun, polished device for the cool kids to play with versus the RIM BlackBerry’s rep as a corporate standard designed to get work done. As with the Mac-versus-PC dichotomy, Apple’s focus on visual interface, exotic technologies like touch, and fun stuff (music, video, and games), coupled with its lack of “serious” capabilities such as encryption, let that perception take root as the conventional wisdom.

I didn’t grow up in my corporate life with either an iPhone or a BlackBerry. For me, a phone is something to make calls with, and a PDA handles my contacts and calendar. But a year ago, I replaced my nearly dead Handspring Palm-based PDA with an iPod touch and quickly grasped the significance of the “modern” PDA—the importance, from both a personal and a professional point of view, of having the Web, e-mail, and more at my fingertips. To me the iPod touch, and by extension the iPhone, was about as productive as a PDA could be, yet I saw BlackBerrys everywhere in conferences and business meetings.

What was it about the BlackBerry that I was missing? Would the iPhone really fall short in a business setting?

To find out, I spent a month with an iPhone 3G and a BlackBerry 9000 Bold (the professional model that RIM recommended as the best to compare to an iPhone) to see how well each would fare in my daily grind. (For the answers to that, see my upcoming stories later this week at InfoWorld.com.) In doing so, I also had the chance to compare the two devices in depth: mail to mail, phone to phone, browser to browser, and thumb stroke to touch-tap. In short, I evaluated them based on everything from classic PDA functionality and usability to location-based services and availability of third-party apps.

And how do they stack up? Frankly, I’ve concluded it’s time to bury the BlackBerry. A revolution in its time, thanks to its ability to provide instant, secure e-mail anywhere, the BlackBerry has become the Lotus Notes of the mobile world: It’s way past its prime.

I was shocked to discover how bad an e-mail client the BlackBerry is compared to the iPhone. And the BlackBerry is terrible at the rest of what the iPhone excels at: being a phone, a Web browser, an applications platform, and a media presenter. With its Windows 3-like UI, tiny screen, patched-together information structure, and two-handed operation, the BlackBerry is a Pinto in an era of Priuses.

Read more…

See the iPhone versus BlackBerry side by side in InfoWorld’s comparative slideshow.

Let me show you point by point why most people—most companies—should retire their BlackBerrys and adopt iPhones. And why some of you sadly cannot. Note that both devices are available only on AT&T’s network, whose coverage and reliability is mediocre on much of the East and West Coasts, a drawback that really hit home when I lost data coverage in lower Manhattan for several hours as AT&T passed me off to roaming partner T-Mobile and its data-less service.

Deathmatch: E-mail, calendars, and contacts

I fully expected the BlackBerry to beat the pants off the iPhone when it came to e-mail. So I was shocked by how awkward e-mail is on the BlackBerry.

In both cases, I used a personal POP account and a work Exchange 2003 account. The iPhone works directly with Exchange, so my e-mail, e-mail folders, calendars, and contacts all flowed effortlessly among the iPhone, laptop, and server. The configuration was trivial. For the BlackBerry, I first used the BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS), which acts like a POP server: You can’t access your Exchange folders, contacts, or calendars. And man, is the setup painful, as you step through seemingly countless Web-based configuration screens. After struggling with the limitations of BIS, I asked our IT staff to connect me to our BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) instead, which gave me the connections to folders, contacts, and calendars.

Compare modern mobile devices in InfoWorld’s guide to next-gen mobile slideshow.

It’s key to note that BES supports Novell GroupWise and Lotus Notes, while both of those servers support the iPhone only through Web clients, limiting their integration with other iPhone apps such as Contacts and Calendar. Thus, BlackBerry supports more e-mail systems, even though you have to add a dedicated server to get that support (and upgrade to the latest version to support app management). But an iPhone is much easier to use with Exchange than a BlackBerry is, at least as a user. Apple uses Exchange Server 2007 for remote iPhone management (remote kill, configuration, and so on). Apple also provides a free app that lets IT admins manage profiles and internally developed iPhone apps on the devices. The hitch is that the management tool can reach the devices only when they are physically tethered to the admins’ computers.

My first struggle with the BlackBerry involved its puzzling timestamping of e-mail messages. Oddly, the BlackBerry lists the messages according to when the device receives them, not when they are sent. (If you open the message, you can see the real date and time.) The first time I told the BlackBerry to “reconcile messages” with the server, so I’d have older messages (past my 30-day setting) available to me, in they flooded—all stamped with the current date and time, burying my new messages. Each time I got off a plane or turned the BlackBerry on after charging it, all the messages received during those disconnected times would be marked as more recent than the messages I got right after I turned the BlackBerry back on. It makes e-mail management a nightmare.

The second frustration was discovering how hard it is to navigate e-mail. I use folders extensively to manage my messages, and the iPhone makes it very easy to navigate among folders. The BlackBerry lets you navigate down but not up, so it’s hard to flip from any one folder to another. And on the BlackBerry, the original message stayed in the top-level inbox, so now the message existed in two places: my too-cluttered inbox and in the folder to which I moved the message from my computer.

Reading e-mail was comparable on both devices, though the iPhone’s larger screen requires less scrolling. I prefer the iPhone’s on-screen controls for replying, forwarding, and so forth over the BlackBerry’s use of its button to open a contextual menu, but that’s an acceptable UI-based difference. Still, the BlackBerry’s menu is too long and requires too much scrolling for common functions. It’s easier to delete messages on an iPhone, both in the list and when reading a message, than on the BlackBerry. The culprit is the BlackBerry’s reliance on the step-intensive contextual menu for almost everything you do.

The BlackBerry and iPhone are mixed bags when it comes to navigating messages. Both the BlackBerry and iPhone offer a quick way to jump to the top of your message list, but only the BlackBerry has a way to jump to the bottom. And only the BlackBerry lets you search messages. The iPhone makes it very easy to select multiple messages to delete or move them, while the BlackBerry can only multiple-select contiguous messages, which in practice means you can’t work on many messages at once. (There is a workaround for some situations: You can search your messages by name, subject, title, or attachment status, then select those files—still contiguously—to work on them.)

Both the BlackBerry and iPhone let you view common attachment formats such as Word, Excel, and PDF. But the iPhone can’t handle zipped attachments, while the BlackBerry nicely shows you a list of the contents so that you can open the ones you want.

With both the iPhone and BlackBerry, you can add people who e-mail you as contacts, but the BlackBerry unnecessarily complicates the process. If it can’t figure out the person's name, it forces you to enter that before it will save the contact. The iPhone, on the other hand, lets you fill in that information at another time, so at least the e-mail address is stored for easy access later. The iPhone also notes who you respond to and adds them to the quick-selection list of addressees it displays as you begin tapping a name, even if they’re not in the address book. The BlackBerry only displays names in the address book.

Both the BlackBerry and iPhone are annoying when it comes to handling calendar invites, but the iPhone is worse. If you get a calendar invitation as an e-mail attachment on an iPhone, you can’t accept it from your e-mail; the iPhone can only sync calendars already handled by Exchange. Plus, you can’t move an event from one iPhone calendar to another, such as from your personal calendar to your work one. That’s just dumb. But a BlackBerry doesn’t recognize multiple Exchange calendars, so even if you distinguish private from work calendars in Exchange, the BlackBerry does not. The same is true if your desktop calendar app has multiple calendars; the BlackBerry sees them all as one. (The BlackBerry treats events in each e-mail account, plus those in your synced desktop calendar, as a separate calendar.)

Another area where the BlackBerry hung me up: I could accept some invites sent to me, but not others. The BlackBerry would often tell me that I could not accept invites because I was the meeting organizer—even though I was not. The BlackBerry also overloads you with calendar item details when you open an invite—it’s overwhelming and not necessary.

The iPhone clearly has some issues, but for such a mature platform, the BlackBerry is surprisingly mediocre when it comes to e-mail. The iPhone makes it easier to read, send, and organize e-mails and contacts, but it falls short when it comes to zipped attachments, handling invites, and searching e-mail. Both disappoint for calendar management.

Deathmatch: Applications

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RIM has made a lot of noise about its BlackBerry App World store, and Apple recently celebrated its 1 billionth App Store download. Make no mistake: The selection of BlackBerry apps is not only limited, but the apps themselves are typically pale, pathetic imitations of iPhone apps. (Compare the New York Times or Salesforce.com on the two devices, for example.) And downloading an app to the BlackBerry usually means wading through several pages and prompts. I much prefer the iPhone’s simple, fast approach to downloads. Like much of the iPhone UI, the App Store recognizes that you’re using a mobile device and that six-screen legal agreements and endless “Are you sure” confirmations are not mobile-friendly. If you download an iPhone app by accident, deleting it takes a couple seconds—and the whole download-install-remove process takes less time than just starting a BlackBerry App World download.

To add insult to injury, there’s no desktop version of the App World store to peruse available options, as there is for the iPhone, and the BlackBerry’s tiny screen makes it hard to do any real perusing or searching. I was also put off by the fact that the BlackBerry App World functionality itself is a BlackBerry app, requiring a download before you can even get started. Not only that, but downloading App World to the BlackBerry from my desktop system via a USB connection required me to use Internet Explorer as my browser. (As a Mac user, I can’t.)

The UI for managing apps on the BlackBerry is pathetic. There are at least four places that apps can reside on the device, so finding them is an unwelcome Easter egg hunt. On an iPhone, they’re easily and consistently accessible, and infinitely easier to organize than on the BlackBerry.

Most BlackBerry “native” apps I tried were just glorified WAP apps, not real apps that take advantage of device-specific capabilities, as native iPhone apps do. (WAP is the DOS-like mobile “Web” technology that the cellular industry tried to palm off on us in the late 1990s.) BlackBerry apps—at least so far—are incapable of doing the cool things that iPhone apps can do, whether acting as a level or a credit card terminal, managing your Amazon.com orders, or translating foreign-language terms (even hearing the pronunciation, which was handy on a recent trip to Portugal). Awkward interfaces make many BlackBerry apps painful to use, and they usually cost two or three times as much as their iPhone equivalents.

See which iPhone apps the InfoWorld Test Center rates as best for business.

The iPhone has a real OS, and its SDK lets you create real applications, with menus, buttons, interactivity, video, forms, and so on. Plus, you can use Web apps, getting the iPhone’s UI for HTML-based functions such as fields and pop-up menus; you can even save the Web apps alongside your other apps for quick one-click access. By contrast, the BlackBerry apps often consist of browser forms and buttons (often at tiny, unreadable sizes) that fetch and display data from the Web. RIM might like to think of them as native apps, but they’re really just stubs to Web apps.

Most apps available for business are either personal aids such as tip calculators and expense logs; front ends to sales tools; or basic editors. The iPhone has better UIs for the first two types of apps. For editing, the BlackBerry has DataViz’s $70 Documents to Go, which is capable and straightforward, letting me do basic text edits in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, and simple formatting such as boldfacing text. You can cut and paste as well. Tracked changes are removed from the document, and though extensive editing is theoretically possible, you're hamstrung by the device's keyboard and trackball.

On the iPhone, I used the $20 Quickoffice for iPhone, a productivity editor that has similar capabilities (including internal cut and paste), plus retains any revisions tracking in the original document. But it can’t work with zipped files. Quickoffice is a little easier to use than Documents to Go, but Apple’s prohibition against saving files on the iPhone means that Quickoffice can’t get to those e-mail attachments. Quickoffice does have a cool tool to transfer files to and from the iPhone over Wi-Fi, but you need your computer up and running to do that—in which case, why would you edit the documents on the iPhone?

I also tried the devices on Google Docs. It’s barely possible to edit a spreadsheet in Google Docs on an iPhone; the most you can do is select and add rows and edit individual cells' contents. You can’t edit a text document, and for calendars all you can do is view and delete appointments. The BlackBerry lets you see spreadsheets one column at a time—which is useless. Bottom line: Google Docs doesn’t support mobile.

I found several BlackBerry apps to be unreliable and very slow. Salesforce.com, for example, didn’t open for weeks due to an undefined error when connecting to its site. When I finally got it installed, it was very hard to read and use. I tried five times to download Gokivo Navigator—BlackBerry App World’s top-rated navigation app—at half an hour a pop. It worked the sixth time, and 90 minutes later was installed and running. Not only did the installation take nearly 45 minutes, but then it rebooted the BlackBerry, which took another 45 minutes to grapple with whatever changes were made. This simply doesn’t happen with iPhone apps.

When all was said and done, Gokivo Navigator turned out to be hard to use compared to the iPhone’s Google Maps. It has as many confirmation dialog boxes as Windows Vista—so getting to a result requires many clicks—but lacks the real-time scrolling or page-by-page direction features of Google Maps. You’d need to be desperately lost to use it—and forget about accessing it in a moving vehicle, given how slow it is and how hard it is to mouse through the maps.

I also found that several BlackBerry apps often hogged my device’s resources, leaving me unable to switch to another application, the Web, e-mail, or the phone. That can happen on an iPhone as well, but the “stuck” times on the BlackBerry were both much more frequent and longer in duration.

Still, I did find 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).

If you want to use apps on a mobile device, the BlackBerry is not a realistic option. If your work forces you to use a BlackBerry, get an iPod touch for the apps.

Deathmatch: 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. But in real life, it doesn’t work that way. Configuration issues pose the first set of hurdles: BlackBerrys often ship with JavaScript disabled, so you have to know to change that. 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.

Deathmatch: Location support

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 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.

Alternatively, I could pony up the $10 monthly fee to use AT&T’s Voice Navigator, which talks you through your directions and updates the map as you move along. (There is no iPhone equivalent, for those who travel a lot and need a travel guide.) Frankly, data services cost too much as it is, so paying even more to get Voice Navigator is not acceptable to me.

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.

Deathmatch: User interface

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.

Where the iPhone wins

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.

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