Tuesday, May 15, 2007

PPC vs Blackberry – second thoughts

Certain events can cause the need for a quick decision: it is strange how a single incident can completely upturn one’s perspective on things. It all started quite innocuously, as I was looking into changing mobile service providers. On offer was a Blackberry as part of a very attractive deal – even more attractive given that I could still use the new SIM in my existing, unlocked PPC device. Furthermore the Blackberry on offer was the 6800 – that’s the one which comes with all the bells and whistles such as an MP3 player – this appealed greatly to my inner magpie. As I saw it, this scenario offered the best of both worlds, enabling me to continue my “evaluation” indefinitely and get a sexy new device in the bargain.

But then, disaster struck. As I opened the cupboard in my office, it caught the cable on my Pocket PC and caused it to drop to the floor, landing awkwardly and, to my utter horror, wrenching off the charging socket from the device. It was the gadget equivalent of stepping off the pavement and breaking an ankle – and it immediately forced a complete reassessment of what had, until then, been a largely academic exercise. OK this isn’t quite the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, but you get the picture. What, I asked myself, were the deciding characteristics between the two devices for the business user? What would I miss, or couldn’t I live without – and what would I be prepared to compromise on?

The factor very much in the favour of the Blackberry is its usability when it comes to mobile email. I receive – and this is more of a curse than a boast – about a hundred emails a day, many of which require some kind of action. Having worked my way around the BB’s shortcut keys, I have reached the point where I can read, respond, file and delete emails quite speedily. The result is that, by the end of the day, I have managed to stay on top of the pile.

There’s a spin-off benefit to come out of this, which I’ve only just started to appreciate: that of the interactive nature of push email. I’ve long been impressed, if not slightly confounded by some of my colleagues that seem to be able to respond to emails as soon as I’ve sent them, leaving me floundering as I would be hoping that there would be a window of time before they got back to me. It’s a bit like playing multiple games of tennis at once – but some opponents are just too damn efficient at hitting back the balls. I now understand that there are a number of factors at play – not only are such people impressively organised, but they’ve also got into the “push email groove” which is an inevitable consequence of getting onto the front foot with their incoming messages.

The downside of course, is the reason why I had never enabled push email on my Pocket PC: it is always, inescapably there. The Blackberry has a clever feature that it can be set to vibrate when it is in the belt holster: the end result could be likened to a combination of electric shock therapy and Chinese water torture. Every now and then – counted in minutes – when a piece of email comes in, it is acknowledged by a discomfiting buzz to the hip. When sitting in a meeting, one is tempted to get the device out and take a look, which can be slightly off-putting for other participants – a bit like answering the phone half way through talking to someone else. If left, the device will bide its time before the next email causes it to buzz again. Try doing that for more than a half hour stretch and see if you don’t go mad.

There is a second issue with the Blackberry’s email functionality, namely that what happens on the Blackberry doesn’t always synchronize with what is on the server. The issue comes when making changes in the Outlook client on the desktop – if, say, an email has already appeared on the Blackberry and then it is moved to a different folder, it doesn’t always follow suit on the device. This is frustrating – the workaround is to copy all emails into a temporary offline folder in Outlook, delete them from the Blackberry and then re-instate them – but that’s hardly a long-term solution.

All this being said, when it comes to simple, effective management of incoming emails, the Blackberry wins hands down. Even with “push” enabled, the Pocket PC device I’ve been using has a clunkier user interface, with more key presses required and less predictive functionality (for example, the Blackberry will suggest a folder to file an email, based on previous choices). It is bizarre but true that I have had more problems downloading emails to the Pocket PC from Exchange than synchronising the Blackberry – indeed, to my mind this is unconscionable. I don’t care how clever is the protocol between device and server – if it doesn’t do the download, any clever features are pointless.

The other vital area that the Blackberry is unquestionably stronger, is in making phone calls. The best way I can think of putting this is that the Pocket PC acts like a computer, whereas the Blackberry acts like a device – the former requires me to keep tabs on running applications and ensure there is enough RAM free, whereas the latter just works. Dial a number, make a call, its not that hard – but the Pocket PC seems to make it so. These two things, put together, have swung the pendulum largely in the direction of the Blackberry: even with the synch issue and death-by-vibration, I have had to face the fact that for business use at least, the Blackberry provides the two essential functions better than I could expect on the Pocket PC. That’s not to be said that I won’t miss the additional capabilities of the latter, but on this occasion at least, productivity will have to win over power.

1 comment:

Jon said...

Very interesting article. I agree with most of it but especially the comment that a Pocket PC acts like a computer and a Blackberry acts like a device. That is the major flaw in Pocket PC. It tries to act like a computer with all the complexity of that but with 90% less the interface ability. Pograms are buried within program, settings are scattered throughout a variety of places. Blackberry just always works. I've had a Palm Treo, Palm Treo running Windows Mobile and hands down I believe my BB 8800 is the best device out there.