By Guy Clapperton

Last month Apple previewed the long-awaited iPhone, a cross between an iPod and a phone, which caught the attention of the media and the immediate disapproval of many business customers who thought it was inappropriate for corporate use.

Well, of course it was, it’s an iPod for goodness’ sake. Its emergence did raise the issue of what a business wants from a smartphone, though, and what’s on the market.

There are a number of options and it’s important to bear in mind that a full-blown ‘smartphone’, as the computer industry calls them, might not be necessary. Formally a smartphone is likely to have an operating system from one of the ‘big four’ providers (Symbian, Microsoft, RIM or Palm) and it will carry and handle office documents as well as some of the more basic functions common on many ‘ordinary’ phones.

My own phone, for example, is not classified as a smartphone. It does, however, carry my diary and synchronises this with my computer; it links my laptop to the Internet through a Bluetooth connection and it happily picks up e-mails for me without any other devices attached. Sending mails using the texting method is a bore and in common with many fortysomethings I scratch my head at the thought of mastering T9 text input. Nonetheless, after synchronising contacts and diary functions and sending a few e-mails I find the device is smart enough for my purposes.

For some people this won’t be enough and it’s likely to be the corporate networking capabilities of the phones or the ability to handle Word, Excel and on occasion PowerPoint documents that makes the difference.

For these the natural choice is likely to be one of the phones that is compatible with Microsoft Windows Mobile, since Microsoft actually writes the full-blown applications in the first place. When you buy one of these you will notice the interface — the bit you look at — is pretty familiar because it looks just like Microsoft Windows. Applications like Outlook are reproduced in a smaller form and anyone picking one of these up for the first time should be able to use it very swiftly.

The second option is Palm, which uses third party applications to read Word, Excel and other office applications. It has its own Web browser and this works much as any other hand-held browser would. Symbian is the third offering which, once again, has its own version of the functions of the other two.

In practical terms the differences are that the Microsoft system uses most memory and will therefore result in a slightly more expensive phone; Palm and Symbian will almost certainly be preferred by people who like lots of add-ins to their systems and of course these will be the choice of the anti-Microsoft brigade. Increasingly, however, the killer application in the corporate world is the ‘push e-mail’ function, which delivers e-mail when it’s sent rather than when the user logs on and gets it. This explains the huge popularity of RIM’s Blackberry, which currently boasts an MP3 player and camera alongside a usable QWERTY keyboard for responding to mails.

The market is still fragmented but interesting things are happening. Palm’s Treo range of mobile phones now includes an option with Microsoft Windows Mobile on it instead of Palm’s own system, which could indicate that users have demanded Microsoft. RIM is moving more into the consumer market with slicker smartphones, and is doing well. A couple of years ago nobody would have predicted either of these things, which is why I’m not going to try and guess what’s coming next. What’s certain is that the distinction between ordinary phones and smartphones is blurring; the trick is to look not at the phone but at what you want to do with it and then buy whatever is appropriate.

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