Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

The smartphone showdown: BlackBerry versus iPhone

Originally published in Lawyers Weekly.

Video pirates posted this scene from the Italian translation of the movie “Sex in the City” on YouTube:

A bride-to-be demands a phone. Her friend hands her a sleek black slab. She takes it. Icons spring onto the device-long screen – no physical keypad. She brusquely hands it back, saying, “I don’t know how to use this.”

Virtual keypads on a phone might initially confound people. Yet the centrepiece of this gag, Apple Inc.’s iPhone, may be the only device capable of replacing Research in Motion (RIM) Limited’s BlackBerry in many a lawyer’s palm.

However, this won’t happen soon, at least not in big firms (Apple’s marketing video and documentation to the contrary). Even though Apple announced Microsoft Exchange support and other features to woo the corporate market, information technology professionals remain skeptical.

“The iPhone is a security concern. We have taken extra precautions,” said Scott Rolf, Director, Information Technology for Cleveland-based Tucker Ellis & West LLP. “We have a very limited set of users on the iPhone and we monitor their use closely.”

And certain omissions glare at business users. The iPhone lacks: a task management tool; voice dialing; copy and paste; video recording; user-replaceable battery; and the ability to search everything on the phone.

So for today, the iPhone’s appeal is restricted to consumers and small businesses. Tomorrow, however, may be a different story.

First, expect early adopters, including C-level executives, to demand IT support in business. That’s because the iPhone, while roughly equivalent in terms of email, phone and PDA functionality, soundly thumps the BlackBerry or any other current handset in terms of usability and appeal.

“It’s easier to read and respond to email,” said Laurie Kadair Redman, a Baton Rouge, Louisiana estate planning and probate lawyer. “When I did that on the BlackBerry, the small screen was difficult for me to read.”

“If I want to go to the afternoon Indians baseball game, I can do that now with impunity,” said Jonathan Cooper, an iPhone-using partner with Tucker Ellis & West. “How many times have you not gone somewhere because you were waiting for a document? Now, if somebody sends me something I need to look at, I can look at it.”

And there’s the fun factor: the iPhone is also an iPod that lets people download music and video to the phone. It also features a YouTube viewer.

While its fans take up the charge, Apple needs to convince the market that its device is ready for business.

Apple has “delegated” some of that responsibility to third-party developers. Many of them have created games. Others seek to fill gaps in the iPhone’s feature set. (“There must be 20 different task managers on the App store,” said Cooper.) Still others, like, IBM and Oracle have iPhone software on the market or in the works.

“There aren’t many business-centred applications (and no legal-specific applications) yet,” said Noah Wood, partner with Kansas City’s Wood Law Firm, LLC. “Those will come as more businesses deploy the iPhone.”

Those applications will help Apple chip away at RIM’s smartphone market lead, since the more a business can do with one device, the more valuable that device becomes.

One particular application caught Tim Davis’s eye – or rather, ear. “Using a voice recorder, we can record dictation and email it to our assistants instead of taking a cassette tape to them,” said the Kentucky-based associate attorney for Lawrence Firm (and former Palm Treo owner). “Any time you have your phone with you, you have your dictaphone as well.”

There might have been voice dictation options for other handhelds, but Davis never learned about them. “Apple has done a such a good job of making applications easy to find through the App Store,” he said. “For the Treo, you had to Google applications.”

“Besides, the voice recorder app we’re looking at is, like, 99 cents. For other handhelds, these applications would be a lot more expensive.”

“Many times I don’t take my laptop into court, but I’ll have my iPhone with me,” said Wood, “so we’re talking about building an application to access our case files on the iPhone.”

Davis adds legal research to his wish list. “We can access our research site via Safari on the iPhone, but a streamlined application would be really helpful while in court or at a deposition,” he said.

But what about that touch screen? “I had a BlackBerry with the trackwheel,” said Kadair Redman. “I loved the trackwheel. I’m not as good on the iPhone yet as I was on the BlackBerry.”

“I think some people will have trouble typing with it, but once you get the hang of it, it works pretty well.”

Meanwhile, the business-BlackBerry marriage remains loyal, so RIM has time to respond to the iPhone – and I don’t expect RIM to meet its Waterloo anytime soon.

To download the article as a PDF, click Smartphone_Showdown.