Which is the best smartphone for business?

ZDNet.com.au talks to executives and analysts to find out which handsets are picking up speed and which are falling by the wayside

ZDNet UK's sister site, ZDNet.com.au, talks to executives and analysts in Australia to find out which handsets are picking up speed and which are falling by the wayside.

It may come as a surprise to learn that in an organisation as large as the Royal Melbourne Institution of Technology's corporate environment, half the mobile phones used are Apple iPhones.

The university's executive director of information technology services Allan Morris, however, prefers the BlackBerry. "I've used BlackBerrys for several years. I find that for email, diary management, you can't beat them in terms of reliability," he tells ZDNet.com.au recently. "If you want something that's more of a business device, I certainly think that the BlackBerry's a win."

Morris currently uses a BlackBerry Bold, but has had no problems with other BlackBerry devices over the years he has been using them, though he is steering clear of the BlackBerry Storm due to some bad reviews it has received.

The IT director understands why people would opt for the iPhone — there are the apps, the iPod capability and the phone's marketing appeal — but he has an iPod Touch for those things. "Would I throw away my BlackBerry as a business device for an iPhone? No I wouldn't," he says, citing better battery life and ease of accessing emails among the reasons.

From an IT point of view, Morris finds it easier to hook up the BlackBerry phones, which he says takes only 10 minutes, though he admits this is because the university uses an email system for which the BlackBerry has a native interface, whereas the iPhone does not.

When asked about other devices, although he knew there were lots of options on the market, Morris says he does not have many people coming to him and asking to hook up alternatives. "Out of 10 requests we'd be lucky to get one that wasn't a BlackBerry or an iPhone," he says. Popular Nokia and Samsung phones were not mentioned.

In the midst of the global financial crisis, Blackberry maker Research In Motion (RIM) seems to be strengthening its hold on the business-smartphone market, ripping market share from competitors such as Nokia. Even the iPhone's glamour is unable to dent the company's success.

According to IDC data, RIM has been the only vendor to post a quarter-on-quarter increase in smartphone shipments every single quarter for over two years. In the first quarter of this year, it managed a 13.6 percent increase, a good performance considering the total market fell by 28 percent. Year on year, RIM grew 112.8 percent, compared to a year-on-year market growth of 26.5 percent.

Although Nokia still leads the overall smartphone market, with market share for the year sitting at 70.9 percent, this has dropped from 77.5 percent recorded in the fourth quarter of 2005. Meanwhile, RIM has risen from 5.6 percent of the market to 13.3 percent from 2005 to 2007.

According to Mark Novosel, IDC market analyst for telecommunications, the numbers show there is strong demand for BlackBerry devices in the corporate sector, but also reflect growing interest in the consumer market. RIM's consumer success was highlighted when Vodafone Australia thanked BlackBerry and the iPhone specifically for an increase in revenues in its recent results.

The iPhone has also enjoyed success in the market, selling 125,000 devices in its first three months in Australia.

Gaining business credibility
With analysts talking about consumers bringing their favourite devices into work and IT departments having to cater to their 'BYO' mentality, there has been some speculation that it might be the iPhone which could challenge BlackBerry's success in the business market.

Yet the device many have dubbed the 'Jesus phone' has suffered a slow path to business credibility. In 2007, just before the vaunted release of the 3G model, Gartner warned that it was not secure enough for business.

Gartner is able to give grudging approval, however, after a firmware update added essential features such as remote wiping and support for Microsoft Exchange push email. IDC's Novosel believes the iPhone is a "new kid on the block", and is in many ways unproven as a serious contender in the business sense. He points out that he has not heard of any major (that is, numbering in the thousands) corporate deployments of the phone.

Probably the largest publicised move in Australia has been that of Lion Nathan, which recently bought over 150 iPhones for its corporate fleet, as reported by The Australian.

Novosel's view is reflected in his numbers, which show that iPhone shipments are not yet making it into the top echelons of market share. With Nokia first and RIM second, Samsung comes in at third place, largely due to the popularity of the Omnia, according to Novosel, which is Windows Mobile-based. Yet when ZDNet.com.au called around among executives, it was the iPhone that featured...

...among the more entrenched BlackBerry and Nokia devices. At internet service provider iiNet, only executives and some senior management have smartphones hooked up to the corporate network, according to the organisation's chief technology officer Greg Bader.

Bader says the executives mostly have BlackBerrys, but that there are a few iPhones fostered by the managing director Michael Malone's fondness for Apple. "Most have BlackBerry because they've been using them for a number of years," Bader says. "We don't really worry about all the gimmicking."

Since smartphones are a productivity tool, people were likely to choose a device they were familiar with, he says. "At the moment it's iPhones and BlackBerrys."

Bader personally is an exception, having leant on the IT department to let him trial an HTC Touch. "I'm a geek so I like gadgets," he says. "The iPhone's too common."

Yet as Jetstar chief information officer Stephen Tame tells ZDNet.com.au, the more individual a company allows its employees to be in a device sense, the more patching is necessary for the IT department, which is the reason firms will often choose to keep to their standard fleet — usually the BlackBerry. However, Tame refuses to consider BlackBerry because its proprietary back-end rules out having other devices connecting to the same hardware. He believes it makes no sense to have two systems running.

Jetstar's smartphones are 80 percent Nokia E71s and 20 percent iPhones, according to Tame. His personal choice is the Nokia E71, which he calls "bulletproof" and is his personal device, not just his workhorse. Jetstar's chief financial offier and the head of airports also use the Nokia, but the commercial directors and the chief executive have opted for the iPhone, Tame says.

The organisation had previously been running the Windows Mobile-based iMate, but had encountered issues with reliability, Tame says. There are still some of the devices floating around, which have been passed on by executives to middle management, but there are no significant pockets of any other phone, he says, despite the fact that he has tried to keep device choice open as long as it is priced fairly and is easy to operate.

Telecommunications carrier PacNet is the exception to the iPhone rule, according to chief executive Bill Barney, who says that its corporate fleet is purely BlackBerry, although people do carry around other devices for personal use. The company has used HTC for three years, but recently switched, Barney says. Roaming is easier using the BlackBerry when compared to the HTC device, but the HTC devices have synchronisation problems and data-transmission issues.

Barney confesses himself to be a fully converted BlackBerry fan since the switch from HTC. None of the executives mention the Omnia and none have seen any Androids appearing in the organisation as work phones, despite the original furore around the device.

This could change, with Vodafone and 3 about to release the next-generation Android phone from HTC, the Magic, adding to Optus's release of the first-generation HTC Dream.

Yet Gartner research director Robin Simpson does not think so. The analyst believes Android will suffer the same problems as Windows Mobile. Windows Mobile, Gartner believes, relies on individual device manufacturers to make the package work and look attractive, which often they fail to do. Instead they achieve an effect that is "a little bit old-fashioned", to Simpson's mind. Also, the Android devices Simpson has seen so far have not been particularly sexy, he says.

Another problem is that manufacturers try to add features to make a phone based on a common operating system different, which makes it a nightmare for applications developers and enterprise IT teams who do not want to have to think about patching many different versions of the same thing. Novosel does not think Android will take off just yet, but for different reasons. Android is still on first-generation devices, Novosel says. When the next generations come around, people will start to be more interested, he believes.

As for device manufacturers in general, Gartner's Simpson believes the smaller ones will really struggle over the next few years, while larger ones such as Nokia have to make sure it is easy to do business tasks such as synchronise email and then style their devices like designers, not engineers.

Novosel points out Nokia's attempts to make it possible for a lot more of its phones to easily set up mail. This could aid the brand in the business market, but he believes it is too early to call. He also believes that there will definitely be room for other smartphone manufacturers to grow in the market.

Novosel believes the BlackBerry will continue to do "extremely well" as the company is devoting a lot of attention to research and development. Gartner's Simpson agrees that it will carry on with its performance, saying that harder economic times will bring people to buy brands they trust, such as the BlackBerry.

It seems the corporate world's love affair with the BlackBerry is not quite at an end.