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Nerd Wars of Religion

nerd_phone_wars

Reading some of the BlackBerry addict sites today, I was not surprised to see that the Faithful were up in arms over the heretical teaching of Consumer Reports.  The American magazine came under fire for having the gall to rate the iPhone and several other smartphones above the BlackBerry.  Yes, I know CR has been involved in several lawsuits and controversies regarding their reporting.  But I simply can’t stand nerd religious wars (i.e. Mac vs. PC [vs. Linux], PS3 vs. Xbox 360, boxers vs. briefs, fish vs. cut bait), and this is a prime example.

A particularly ludicrous rant comes from Alexander Wolfe, “advanced technology” blogger for Information Week.

Even more mystifying is that fact that, on Consumer Reports‘ full list of smartphone ratings, a BlackBerry doesn’t appear until No. 7. That’s after the iPhone, Palm Treo 755P, Samsung BlackJack, Motorola Q, and Treo 680. How can a BlackBerry be below a couple of Windows Mobile devices like the BlackJack and the Q?

As an former owner/operator of two Treos and three BlackBerries, let me break it down for you.

Things BlackBerries Do Really Well (Compared to Treos):

  • Provide wireless push messaging and PIM sync services.
  • Run a small number of third-party applications from device RAM.
  • Run applications that pull data from wireless connections rather than an onboard database.
  • Task switch/multitask, especially with an active data connection.

Things Treos (Palm OS or Windows Mobile) Do, but BlackBerries Can’t:

  • Keep applications on the SD card, only loading them into RAM at application launch.
  • Read data and execute applications from the SD card.
  • Employ a touch-screen and stylus, thereby avoiding endless scrolling and clicking.

How do these examples play out in the real world?

Example 1: Navigation

Let’s say you have a fancy new BlackBerry with onboard GPS receiver.  You’re in the middle of nowhere—Baffin Island—and want to find out where the nearest town is.  Get out your BlackBerry, turn on the GPS receiver and voila, you are shown a spot on a blank map.  I said a blank map—the BlackBerry doesn’t keep its maps in device RAM (nor on the micro-SD card).  It downloads maps on an as-needed basis using your cell phone connection.  Not so useful any more, is it?

Your Treo, on the other hand, stores all of its third-party maps on the SD card.  It doesn’t even have a built-in GPS, so you have to use a GPS puck connected via Bluetooth.  But you have the advantage of being able to utilise GPS in the absence of a cellular connection.  Which is more useful to you?  Kind of depends on where you travel, doesn’t it?

Example 2: Inefficient Use of Device Memory

Want to read an e-book or access a large-ish local database on your BlackBerry?  Those need to be stored in device RAM, which is somewhere between 64-72 MB (minus a dozen MB or so for device firmware and OS).  Device RAM is also where all of your call logs, tasks, calendar entries and emails live, so you can’t eat up too much of that space.  Want to store applications on the micro-SD card and load them into RAM when required?  Sorry, can’t do it.

Your Treo, on the other hand, can store applications on its SD card, loading them into device memory when launched.  Your Treo is also smart enough to be able to read e-books, databases and data of most types directly from the SD card, so you are not eating up precious device memory just storing your currently-dormant applications.

Conclusion

I happen to like both device types for different reasons.  Users will have a variety of viewpoints on the utility of these devices.

BlackBerries are unbeatable in a corporate environment because they provide the connectivity and messaging that corporate users crave, while simultaneously providing the security that corporate IT groups crave.  BlackBerries are terrific in situations where you have wireless data coverage, the information you need is easily accessible via wireless connection, and your IT department concurrently needs the ability to make your BlackBerry drop dead when (not if) you are an idiot and misplace it.

Treos (and iPhones, and others) are great in the prosumer realm because they provide a broader feature set and can sacrifice some security and control for a different user experience.  They are also good in situations where a wireless connection is not guaranteed (like the subway, or Baffin Island), because you can carry the bulk of your data with you on the SD card.  On the downside, their integration with corporate messaging is usually handled through third-party applications, and they have no integral remote-kill, which makes them more risky for corporate environments.

Different situations call for different tools.

Internal Audit always rings twice

Get back to your desk, slacker!

Suddenly, I regret having a GPS-enabled BlackBerry.

While reviewing the new I.T. policies on a just-upgraded BlackBerry Enterprise Server, I found this little gem:

bes_location_track

Normal GPS receivers are exactly that—receivers.   They don’t transmit any information back to ground or satellite stations.  But cell phones—by their very nature—are location-reporting devices.  They are constantly in touch with the cellular towers, checking signal strength against several towers at once, allowing triangulation of your position.

Some North American wireless carriers are employing this innate capability in a useful way, by giving that triangulation information to emergency services when someone calls 911 from a mobile phone.  This is also how services like Globis Data’s DRIVES determines traffic flow along major streets and highways.

This information has never been reported back to the BES, and I’m not sure just how granular and specific the recorded data will be.  Will it record a complete daily track, or just take a single snapshot every 15 minutes, discarding the previous location data?  I guess one way to find out to enable this policy for my own account and see what kind of crap it records in the back-end database.

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BlackBerry software must-haves

Just retired the BlackBerry 8100 (Pearl) for an 8310, and while I was in the process of loading up all the software again, I figured I would make a list here of all the cool junk you need to have installed on your wireless handheld.

THE TOP FIVE

  • Gmail Mobile (Free). Sure, you can set up BIS at home and have it push your Gmail to your BlackBerry—as long as your desktop is running and can connect to your mail account.  But why bother when Google has made it easy for you?  Just download the Gmail mobile client to your handheld device.  It will pre-load messages and check mail in the background.  Any Gmail
    messages you read, delete, or mark for follow-up on your handheld will be similarly handled in your web-based account, automatically.  Can use it to search your Gmail account for words/phrases too, just like the web version.  I prefer to use Gmail Mobile rather than BIS, so that my personal email doesn’t show up in the standard BB Messages view (which is always clogged with business email).  As the Offspring would say, ya gotta keep ’em separated.
  • Virtual Reach Viigo Personal (Free).  An indispensable RSS reader for your handheld device.  Set the update interval to something as short as every 30 minutes, or as lengthy as once a day.  Manage feeds via the device or by logging in to Virtual Reach’s website.  Now you’ve got the latest news and blog updates to read on your morning commute.
  • SplashID ($).
    ID and password manager for mobile devices.  password- and encryption-protected to guard your data.  Syncs with a desktop component too, so you can enter the stuff via your desktop keyboard and, after syncing, have the data readily available on your mobile device.  Not just for computer IDs and passwords, but can accommodate insurance account numbers, frequent flier IDs, clothing sizes, web logins, et cetera.  Super-handy if you have a million infrequently-used IDs and/or passwords, but may need any one of them at the drop of a hat.
  • Globis Data DRIVES (Free).  Not an application, but a website that can be accessed via your mobile (or desktop) browser.  WAP-based traffic information services for Toronto and Montreal, with Calgary coming soon.  Uses mobile phone signals to determine the speed of cars along certain streets and highways, then displays average traffic speed on the map.  Frackin’ cool use of everyday technology.  Bookmark this one, it’ll come in handy.
  • Pretty much any Magmic game ($).  A boatload of addictive games for your mobile device.  Old board games like Monopoly and Stratego.  Sports games like Curling, or my current addiction, Golden Tee Golf.  Yes, it’s just like the full-sized Golden Tee where you compete against drunken people in bars across the continent.  There’s also card games like Blackjack, Cribbage, Euchre and Texas Hold’em Poker.  A veritable warehouse of time-wasting mobile goodness.

FOR THE I.T. CROWD

  • Rove Mobile Admin ($$).  Permits management of your IT infrastructure from a wireless handheld (BlackBerry, Treo, specific models of Sony, Nokia & Motorola phones).  The list of supported servers and devices is considerable.  Free 30-day demo, otherwise licensing cost is calculated on a per-server basis.  Well worth the investment—say goodbye to hauling your laptop everywhere during on-call duty.

FOR THE MOBILE EXECUTIVE

  • WorldMate Live ($$ ).  Create and manage travel itineraries, check flight schedules and status, look up numbers of airlines, hotel chains, and car rental places.  Plus a currency converter, local weather forecasts, and world clocks.  Nine bucks a month for the fully-featured jet-setter Gold Edition, or a slightly crippled version for free.

RUNNERS-UP

  • Google Maps Mobile (Free).  Get directions to unfamiliar places.  Find the closest gas station, restaurant or hospital.  Figure out where the hell you are.  Works with GPS-equipped BlackBerries, showing your position on a moving map.  For handhelds without GPS, it won’t tell you where you are, but it’s still more convenient than carrying a wad of paper maps around.
  • Facebook for BlackBerry (Free).  Just what you needed.  The universal productivity-destroyer, now with added wireless data charges!  Note that the Facebook app uses the BlackBerry Browser to communicate.  The BB Browser uses your company BES (BlackBerry Enterprise Server) to surf, and then packages and sents the requested data to your wireless handheld.  Most companies don’t permit their BESes to communicate with the Facebook.com domain, so if you’re on a corporate BES, forget about it.

As with all mobile phone software, the application may be free, but the air/data time is not.  Be aware of the wireless data charges you will be incurring through use.

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Wrong way on a one-way track

Treonauts have some Super-Blurr-O-Vision shots of what is reputed to be the Palm Treo 800p.  Back in the day I really liked Palm products; they seemed like they were ahead of the curve in smartphone technology with the Treo 600, and later the 650.  Groundbreaking products for the time, with a lot of great features (calendar, contacts, to-do list, memos, voice dial, voice memo, bluetooth, web browser, e-mail, camera, music, e-books, millions of easily-obtained 3rd-party applications) all wrapped up in one nice, neat package.

This, however, is not a neat package:

treo800p

(image via Treonauts)

This is some kind of fugly beast that has somehow tricked Palm into calling it a Treo.  And worst of all, it’s still running Palm OS 5 (since renamed Garnet OS).  Garnet’s not a horrible operating system, but it has remained essentially unchanged since the Treo 600 (running Garnet 5.2) was unveiled four years ago.  Sure, there have been minor revisions brining it up to Garnet 5.4, but it’s still the same basic animal under the hood.  If you include the 800, that makes six smartphones (600, 650, 680, 700p and 755p) still running the same 2003-vintage operating system.

Although I’ve since switched to a BlackBerry to give me better connectivity with the goings-on at work, a part of me really misses the ability to customise the hell out of the Treo with your own applications and add-ons.  That’s something that BBs flat-out lack.  Yes, there are lots of vendors for BB applications out there, but even so I can not duplicate all of my old Treo 650’s functionality in a BlackBerry Pearl.  In some cases there is no analogue in the BB world.

What is really frustrating is that this move by Palm is all too familiar.  Palm was supposed to crank out a successor OS—Palm OS 6, a.k.a. Cobalt—a few years ago.  Apparently they showed it to hardware vendors, but nobody wanted to base a device around the new OS, so it died an unlamented death.

Then the company got caught up in the Three Stooges antics of spinning off its software and OS division in 2003, and buying certain rights back in 2005, and unloading the division again in 2006.  Palm also announced in 2004 that they were going to Unix-ify the successor OS by basing it on Linux—sort of like Apple did with Mac OS X.  This was supposed to give the new OS greater flexibility and allow it to deal with multitasking and multithreading a lot better than Garnet ever did.  Here we are three years later, with no Unix OS to show for it.

So now Palm is bravely cranking out series after series of devices running the same basic kernel that’s been out since 2003, while other vendors are cranking out actual technological advances—the much-heralded iPhone, the BlackBerry 8800—and so on.  Who’s going to line up for Palm’s shiny new hardware with a four-year-old engine under the hood?

Good luck fellas—you’re going to need it.

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