A lot has been written about how Apple added support for Microsoft Exchange to help the iPhone better compete with BlackBerry and Windows Mobile in corporate environments. But the reverse is also true. BlackBerry maker Research In Motion, as well as companies that make Windows Mobile phones, are setting their sights on the consumer market.
That's old news when it comes to Windows Mobile. There are numerous vendors who use Microsoft's mobile operating system, and it has long been easy to find models with media players, still and video cameras, GPS and other features designed for non-enterprise applications. But, BlackBerry maker RIM, which got its start in the decidedly pinstriped world of big business and government, has been relatively slow to, metaphorically speaking, loosen its tie. But that's changing.
By the end of September, AT&T will start offering RIM's new Bold phone, which is expected to support both WiFi and AT&T's 3G network with plenty of consumer-friendly features, as well as a higher resolution screen, GPS, more storage and faster performance than existing BlackBerries.
RIM hasn't yet sent out evaluation loaners of the Bold, but the company did loan me one of its relatively new Curve 8330 models ($150 with activation and after rebate) which I activated on the Sprint network.
Like other BlackBerries I've used, it has all the business tools that big enterprises expect, including push email and support for Microsoft Exchange, as well as personal e-mail accounts. But like the Bold and the Pearl, the Curve has a 2-megapixel still camera with a built-in flash. And unlike the new iPhone, it also records video (video requires an optional MicroSD card).
It has GPS and a voice recorder, and comes preloaded with BlackBerry maps. But it also supports other navigation tools, including "Sprint Navigator," which is Sprint's version of the excellent Telenav service. And, like the iPhone, there are plenty of applications you can download from RIM, Sprint, Handmark and other vendors. Like the iPhone but unlike most smart phones, it also has a standard (.35 mm) headphone jack, so it can be used with any headphone or plugged into a car stereo with a standard input jack. I loaded some tunes on a microSD card so I can listen to music at the gym.
I'm more of a BlackBerry fan than a Windows Mobile fan because of its ease of use and generally faster response when loading and running software. But I have to admit that the new Palm 800w ($250 after rebate and activation), which runs Windows Mobile 6.1, is an impressive device. Like the BlackBerry Curve and Pearl, it works as well for consumers as it does for corporate users.
The Palm has the usual business features, including Microsoft Exchange email and Microsoft Office Mobile Suite. But this device, which currently runs only on the Sprint network, has a lot of nice consumer features, including WiFi, which gives you fast Web access when you're near a WiFi hotspot even if you don't have cellular access. It has a good keyboard but also a touch screen.
Sometimes it's easier just to touch the screen with your fingers or the stylus to make a selection but, when typing messages, I prefer using physical keys. Like the BlackBerry Curve, the 800w has a 2-megapixel camera. It also has GPS and available navigation software and, of course, Windows Media player for video and audio media.
Unlike the Palm Curve and Pearl, it does not have a standard headphone jack. You can use Bluetooth headphones, and it comes with a wired stereo headset that you can plug into the proprietary jack. But I prefer the ability to use whatever headphones I have around and appreciate that consumer BlackBerry devices, and the new iPhone, support standard headphones and ear buds without having to use a special adapter.
What I like about both the new BlackBerries and the Palm 800w is that they innovate without imitating. These are not iPhone clones but phones built in the tradition of Palm, RIM and Microsoft with no apologies for their business acumen and no attempt to simply mimic Apple. Good for them.
There are, of course, plenty of other consumer-friendly smart-phones on the market from HTC, Samsung and other vendors, but few are also as business friendly as BlackBerry, Palm and Windows Mobile.
Now, thanks in part to the success and innovation of Apple's iPhone, there is pressure on the entire industry to make phones that serve both office and personal tasks. As Google's hardware partners ready their Android phones, we can look forward to even more choices in both hardware design and software implementation.
My hope is that as the smart-phone industry matures it doesn't mimic the PC industry, with almost nothing but me-too products.