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 (a basic version is included at no charge by many carriers), 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? Recently released, an iPhone version of Documents to Go can download attached files if they come from an Exchange Server, which only partially gets around the Apple limitation; but it works only on Word files, so it’s not terribly useful.
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: You won’t use Google Docs on either device.
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. The alternative is to pay a monthly fee for AT&T’s voice-based navigation service, which is available on many phones, not just BlackBerrys.
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. The BlackBerry’s application switching issues meant that its alleged advantage of being able to run multiple apps simultaneously is limited, essentially letting you pick up where you left off rather than really working with multiple apps. Still, that’s more than the iPhone can do.
I did find one BlackBerry app advantage: 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.
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 BlackBerry App World store’s top-rated 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, though that may change with the iPhone OS 3.0’s new support for voice commands.) 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 sometimes 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. Plus, they can do keyboard shortcuts, which is a nonexistent concept on the iPhone.
Both keyboards have their issues. Typing numbers and special symbols on the BlackBerry can result in hand-wrenching positions, and you 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 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, and hard to zoom, and it’s 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 leaves 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.
One big drawback of the iPhone had been its lack of copy and paste, which iPhone OS 3.0 addresses in a very easy-to-use, intuitive approach. It’s far superior to the BlackBerry’s key-and-menu-based approach; plus, it can handle graphics and regions of Web pages, not just text. That former BlackBerry advantage is no more.
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. You can remote-wipe and incapacitate an iPhone, but only via Exchange. The BlackBerry can have updates and policies pushed to it wirelessly, as well as confirm and log such updates so that you can demonstrate regulatory compliance; by contrast, although the Apple Configuration Utility provides BlackBerry-like security and policy capabilities, you can’t force users to install them or even know whether they have done so. And forget about pushing automatic policy updates.