2004: The year of the smart phone? Yes and no

Smart phones have been one of the big subjects of 2003. But how close are we to the dream of a single device, great for voice, multimedia and various data apps, one equally at home in a high-powered meeting or down the pub? Tony Hallett has been trying out three of the most interesting devices organisations are considering…

Smart phones have been one of the big subjects of 2003. But how close are we to the dream of a single device, great for voice, multimedia and various data apps, one equally at home in a high-powered meeting or down the pub? Tony Hallett has been trying out three of the most interesting devices organisations are considering…

Let me put my cards on the table. I've long been a Palm OS user and someone who hates doing text messaging without a keyboard. If that clouds what you're about to read, I hold my hands up now. But my gut feeling is that it won't – and that, more importantly, we're on the eve of a period of common-sense smart phone adoption by businesses that has been forecast for some time.

The three devices I want to concentrate on are the Treo 600, the xda II, and the BlackBerry 7230.

Other smart devices have made a splash this year in various ways. Nokia smart phones such as the 6600, based on the Symbian operating system and Series 60 interface, are undoubtedly at the start of a growth curve, and Microsoft's Windows Mobile advances with its contract-manufactured SPV (also only on Orange) and, more impressively this year, the MPx200 from Motorola would feature in many reviews.

But the purpose here isn't a fully comprehensive in-depth technical review. With so many people with a vested interest in proclaiming the smart phone market alive and kicking – but seemingly forgetting what the point of any shift is – I wanted to get a sense for which type of device will help move the market.

The launch of the Treo 600 this autumn received a lot of attention. It was brought out by Handspring, just before that company was acquired by Palm, leaving us with a PalmOne at the end of this year featuring PDA pioneers Donna Dubinsky and Jeff Hawkins returning to the fold, as well as communications devices sitting alongside Tungsten and Zire PDAs.

The most notable thing about the Treo 600 is that it looks more like a mobile phone than a PDA. There is a fair size, good quality screen – though it doesn't do justice to photos taken with the integrated VGA camera – and an aerial that could be from any number of mobiles, most memorably an Ericsson from two or three years back.

Where the Treo 600 wins is on two fronts. First, it is truly an open, smart phone. Palm's 17,000 or so applications can run here, as they would on a mobile-but-not-wireless PDA.

Second, there is the design, which rivals that of some of Nokia's best efforts over the years or, indeed most interestingly, the classic Palm V. Now that's saying something, but the device isn't just good to look at. In hand, it is relatively heavy but works as either a 'candy bar' phone or as a device to hold at arms length for handsfree voice or messaging.

Innovations include a usable keyboard that is, frankly, about as small as Qwerty can get, and messaging that includes 'chat threads' for SMS messages – meaning texts to and from the same two people don't appear as lots of individual entries (waiting to be deleted separately at some later point in time).

Let me get to messaging in a moment but, in general, two thumbs up. In the U.K. Orange, like O2 among the more ballsy operators when it comes to trying various devices, will be hoping that offering the Treo 600 will drive defections from rivals. I wouldn't predict that, at least not in significant numbers, but over the past two months, this is the device that has received the biggest wow factor when shown around – and that's just a looks thing.

Talk of keyboard-based devices inevitably leads to the BlackBerry, the baby of successful Canadian company Research in Motion.

The BlackBerry 7230 is a colour screen, tri-band handheld, like all three devices considered here, but is strange to use for voice calls. Sure, it works just fine, but a thin, square design marks this out as a handheld still concentrating on doing one thing very well – e-mail.

BlackBerrys have grown up as mobile phone supplements. I have doubts many people will ditch their regular mobile phones and use this as an all-in-one. It strictly isn't 'smart' in the sense of downloading applications, and – not being Palm OS- or Windows-based – I didn't find it easy for calendaring, contacts, memos and other information management functionality. There is no camera or Bluetooth.

Some have criticised BlackBerry navigation being based around a trackwheel operated by a thumb (assuming you don't hold it in your left hand) but I found it easy enough to operate after a little practice, as have most BlackBerry users over the years.

So in terms of industrial design and usability the BlackBerry passes, without setting the world on fire. Its strong point is messaging but, as I said, hold on for that.

The xda II is the follow up to the xda, being a Windows Pocket PC-based device from O2 and one now equipped with Bluetooth, an integrated camera and aerial, and a slightly better screen than its predecessor.

For anyone familiar with the Pocket PC OS – I had to reacquaint myself – navigation is pretty straightforward, and the device comes packed with options. The inclusion of Bluetooth makes it stand out from the other two devices here, though not lots of others on the market such as the SonyEricsson P800 and P900, as does a now removable battery.

Why didn't Handspring include Bluetooth in the Treo 600? "We had to ship it at some stage," a senior executive told me just after its launch, clearly happy with all the other goodies included.

Of the three, the xda II has the best quality and biggest screen, though it is also too large to be a straightforward mobile phone substitute, fine for a business meeting but probably a complement to a mobile used socially.

I found the xda II to be a gradual upgrade to the xda, a device already full of features. But would it in itself make end users want to move to O2? Again, I doubt it.

A key aspect of all these devices – and smart phones in general – is their data communications ability. For all in Europe, this generally means how they connect to WAP sites and corporate and POP3 email servers using GPRS.

I found a lot in common with all three. Dealing with the same telecoms/IT department in each trial, it was obvious that buy-in from the head of IT is necessary to warrant settings, security and so on being configured properly to synchronise wirelessly with otherwise desktop-bound email.

This is clearly most of the point for the BlackBerry, with RIM likely to move increasingly to server software licensing, but all three also have the option of connecting to various POP3 accounts or out-of-the-box set up of email from telcos, which a surprising number of end users seem to be doing.

The cost of sending and receiving messages using GPRS means a minefield of tariffs across all the operators but, at the end of the day, relatively similar and expensive across the board. And beware GPRS roaming costs.

GPRS also remains painfully slow most of the time. That's not a huge problem for email but any internet-based browsing services take – no matter what the ads might say – painfully longer than dial-up over 56Kbps modems, for example. Roll on EDGE and 3G networks.

Texting with a keyboard-based device, however, is liberating and a real boon.

Battery life varied depending on usage though the BlackBerry seemed to come out best, easily lasting for over a week.

The verdict
For its design, its openness and being based on the reliable and easy-to-use Palm OS, the Treo 600 gets the nod from me today. However, this comparison over the past three months or so, while showing the right device, marketed the right way can drive smart phone adoption forward, also leads me on to red flags for any organisation.

Set up for synchronised email must be easier. Per megabyte costs must be more transparent and lower, and the overall benefits in terms of increased productivity to an individual or organisation must be easier to calculate.

Microsoft-based smart phones will continue to get better – witness the latest Orange SPV E200 – and there will be sharply increasing numbers of phones based on the Symbian OS, and not just from Nokia or in Europe.

But there are still two aspects of this market. Though it is now finding its feet, it is no certainty who will walk off the winner, in terms of operators, handset makers, software vendors – and indeed user organisations.