Wednesday, 20 August 2008

iPhone: First impressions of a Blackberry user

For a while now, I have maintained two mobile phones – one for business use and one for personal use - and in terms of requirements, I need different things in each context.

There are four ‘must haves’ for my business device – good battery life, quick and convenient calling from a large directory of contacts, a solid, immediate and user friendly email capability, and acceptable security.

As a long time Blackberry user, three of these have been ‘givens’ for the past five years, the only compromise in the early days being relatively clunky functionality for making and receiving calls. The Blackberry Curve I am using at the moment, though, delivers well on this front too, so all of my needs for business use are catered for effectively.

On the personal side of the equation, my requirements are a bit different. From a calling perspective, I tend to be dialling from a much shorter list of contacts – tens rather than hundreds – and telephony use in general is much lighter. As a small business owner, there is still a requirement to access business email (as you never know what might need your direct attention), so connectivity to Microsoft Exchange and security are still important. Immediacy and user friendliness of email functionality is less so, however – these just need to be good enough allow periodic inbox browsing and very occasional replies.

Battery life is an interesting one. When using a device off duty, if I see the juice is getting a little low, I can curtail my usage and prolong the life left in the device. This is generally not an option for business use given the communication intensive nature of the job I do.

Beyond the communication stuff, there is also the recreational side of things – music, games, photography and perhaps a little web browsing. This brings me to the iPhone, and when I was looking for an upgrade to my personal device a few weeks ago before going on holiday, I felt obliged to check out this option.

Like most people who pick up an iPhone for the first time, it immediately felt quite natural, and it is the first device I have used that appeared to deliver a genuinely usable full web browsing experience – at least when connected to WiFi in the O2 store. When digging a little deeper, the Microsoft Exchange access seemed pretty well covered, the device was pin-securable with remote wipe capability, and the embedded iTunes, GPS enabled mapping, etc looked great. The only thing that seemed a little naff was the camera spec, though I figured it was probably good enough for snapshots of the kids, dog, etc.

So, I succumbed, and signed up for an iPhone on the basis that it seemed to do most of the things I wanted. But has it lived up to expectations?

Well three weeks on, I have to say that I still really like the iPhone and am pleased that I went for it. It has stood the test of real life use and quite a bit of experimentation over my recent 2-week holiday. It functions OK as a phone and call quality seems pretty good. The music playback quality is also good, especially when compared to my iPod Nano. Beyond this, there’s a reasonable number of games available to keep me amused, and, as suspected, the camera is actually OK for family snapshots, though, unsurprisingly, no good for ‘proper’ creative photography.

However, the iPhone is far from a perfect device. The most immediate problem I ran into was battery life. Perhaps optimistically, I started out running with all of the defaults – relatively bright screen setting, 3G enabled, GPS switched on, email delivered from our Exchange server through the ‘push’ mechanism (similar to Blackberry), etc. After returning home a couple of times at the end of a day out with the battery almost exhausted (with relatively light use), I suspected a little tuning was in order.

Fortunately, the iPhone allows you to switch off 3G access with the flip of a soft-switch, leaving the device running purely on the GSM network with data access over GPRS or EDGE. This improves battery life considerably, and as I don’t do much browsing when out and about, I have left it this way, figuring I can always enable 3G again for short periods when I really need to. The other adjustment that seemed to extend battery life significantly (apart from the obvious move of winding down the screen brightness) was disabling the push email mechanism and setting the device to poll the Exchange server every hour instead. Again, this adjustment can be made through soft-switch flicking, allowing the polling frequency to be set to every 15 minutes, 30 minutes or whatever, with more frequent polling clearly consuming more power.

Interestingly, enabling and disabling WiFi doesn’t appear to make a huge difference, so because of the convenience of the iPhone automatically hooking onto my home network when I arrive at the house, and discovering hotspots when out and about, I have tended to leave WiFi switched on.

As a disclaimer, I have to say that my tests have not been that scientific in that I have just been making adjustments in an attempt to get a configuration that works for me while I get on with my life. Unlike a lab test, no two days usage have been exactly the same, so what I am picking up here are gross differences in performance. That said, the one conclusion I have come to is that the combination of battery life limitations coupled with the inability to swap batteries when the power runs out makes the iPhone far from ideal for heavy business use on the basis of the power issue alone.

And while I wasn’t explicitly evaluating the device for business use, there are some other things that would cause me concern in this context. Apart from the widely reported lack of cut-and-paste capability, I noticed some quirks associated with the email client, for example, which make it difficult to do some things offline and require zooming and horizontal panning to read some email messages that refuse to word-wrap. Then, while I was pleasantly surprised at how usable the soft touch-screen keyboard was for casual text entry, I cannot imagine ever getting to the level of speed and unconscious use that comes naturally with a device that has a decent physical QWERTY keyboard. This may not be a concern for many, but it is major consideration for me, as I tend to use mobile email very interactively for business purposes.

In terms of issues from a corporate adoption perspective, others may also be concerned about lack of data encryption on the device itself, but with a sealed unit, pin access and remote wipe capability, if you take a common sense approach to assessing risk, there is probably not a huge security exposure for most business users.

When all things are considered, I would say the iPhone comes nowhere near devices such as the Blackberry Curve or 8800 series in terms of business fitness for purpose, particularly for heavy mobile data users. As a predominantly personal device, however, it is a great example of where mobile technology is going, and as I said, I am very pleased with the overall package.

As an industry analyst, I should probably grumble at the closed business practices of Apple itself in terms of controlling the distribution of content for the iPhone, but when I then think about the convenience and ease of use for a non-technical user, I can see that there is a also an upside to controlling things end to end for mass market consumer adoption.

So, the bottom line is that based on my initial impressions, I would not discourage anyone from buying an iPhone for personal use, but I would urge them to think about their requirements and do the appropriate due diligence before investing in the device for business use. As for large-scale deployment in a business environment for hard-core mobile requirements, I am not sure the device is yet ready in its current form, though if anyone has any experience to the contrary, I would love to hear from them. How do you rate the iPhone from a policy management, software distribution, maintenance and end-user support perspective for example?

Whatever the current situation, the end-user appeal of the iPhone will ensure that it makes its way into many businesses one way or another, and with Nokia, Microsoft, Palm and others already challenging RIM on fitness for purpose, we can look forward to an interesting couple of years as it all shakes out.