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Phoney war is raging

Phoney war is raging

The competing claims and plans for the new generation of mobile phones are almost impossible for the layperson to understand.

Thanks to the power of Apple's marketing machine, it's likely most people have heard of the iPhone - and want one. But it's far less likely at this stage that employers will foot the bill to kit their workers out with the coveted handsets, and corporate technology departments are all but certain to bar iPhone owners from putting the device on the company network as well.

That's not because the button-down world hates the non-conformist handset, however. It's because the iPhone has quite a way to go before it matches the security and flexibility that business gets from Windows and BlackBerry phones.

All of this means that fashion-conscious executives, at least for the time being, will probably have to look elsewhere if they want a little corporate bling.

On the surface, that's not a problem as vendors from Research In Motion (RIM) to HTC, Samsung and Nokia have unleashed handsets that are designed to rain on the iPhone's parade. A flurry of additional devices that designers started working on when Apple unveiled the first version of its popular mobile device last year are also due to hit the market in coming months.

There are pros and cons to all of the phones vying for attention in this crowded sector, but lest you feel you're missing out, buyers should also know that despite being labelled the "Jesus phone" by some, the iPhone has faults too.

Those faults extend beyond the usual criticism that the iPhone is something special when it comes to surfing the web and somewhat lacking when it comes to all the other things smart phones do. Its camera isn't very powerful and won't record video, YouTube clips take an eternity to load and the applications that are supposed to expand the capabilities of handsets as business tools are little more than consumer fluff today.

Technical problems that have several iPhone component suppliers pointing fingers of blame also mean that the handset has a worrying tendency to drop calls and grind to a halt online.

The more serious technical issues are really only now coming to the fore, and it's likely they haven't had a measurable impact on iPhone sales yet. The fact the iPhone 3G has sold as well as it has despite its many shortcomings is also the true mark of Apple's cleverness.

In its first week, the iPhone 3G sold about 1 million units. That's a milestone that HTC's competing Touch Diamond handset took five months to reach. Taiwan company HTC is now pushing hard to muscle the updated Diamond onto Apple's turf and, on paper, it is difficult to see why anyone would favour one over the other.

The Diamond has a higher resolution touch screen and a better camera, and it's smaller and lighter to boot. Like the iPhone, it runs on high-speed 3G networks, and if you fancy carrying around something that looks like a discarded piece of a Star Wars set, the Diamond is pretty enough too.

It also runs on Windows Mobile, which means corporate computer departments are happy enough to let the phone loose on the company network. But the fact it runs on Windows Mobile is also its biggest flaw. (The second biggest is that the onscreen alpha-numeric keypad doesn't leave a whole lot of room for text).

Microsoft's mobile operating system retains the look and feel it had when it first became widely available in personal digital assistants early this decade, so picking up a spanking new handset and seeing that old interface has a vaguely anachronistic feel.

When the operating system is installed on a pocket-size phone such as the Touch, with its sharp but small screen, it also becomes almost impossible to navigate using a finger tip - which is, after all, the point of these iPhone wannabes. This means you'll be using a stylus to stab away at some of the more microscopic Windows Mobile tabs, which is inconvenient when you only have one hand to spare.

In their defence, phone makers such as HTC are doing their best to hide as much of Windows Mobile as possible behind custom user interfaces.

The problem is not limited to Microsoft-powered phones, and fellow flashy but corporate-friendly handsets from phone maker Nokia are saddled with a similar legacy.

Nokia's iPhone equivalent, the N96, runs on the Symbian operating system that has its roots in the Psion mini-notebook of yore. Like Windows Mobile, an operating system designed for a larger device has been crammed into a mobile phone.

The big difference between the N96 - which is due in Australia soon - and most other handsets in this market segment is that it eschews a touch screen in favour of an alpha-numeric keypad that slides out of the bottom of the phone, and a multimedia keypad that pops out the top.

Hoping to mirror the iPhone more directly, Samsung's imminent arrival, the i900 Omnia, does away with keypads like the Touch but boasts a screen the same size as the Apple device.

It's the phone most similar to the iPhone, which means it will take on one of the more frustrating aspects of that form - touch screen-based QWERTY keyboards are finicky to use and take up valuable screen space. They're also difficult to tap away on one-handed because the sensors that decide which virtual key has been hit can be confused by something as portly as a thumb.

Sony Ericsson's answer to that problem is the Xperia X1, also due in Australia soon. On the surface, it's a touch-screen handset almost identical to the i900 and the iPhone. But the screen slides aside to reveal a QWERTY keyboard, making the X1 properly useful for mobile email and typing-dependent tasks.

For people looking for an iPhone look-alike that the boss will approve for work use, the X1 is shaping up as perhaps the best mix of Apple aesthetics and blue-suit practicality. But again, scratch the surface and it's still hobbled by Windows Mobile. It's not really suited to single-handed use either - so you can forget sending messages if you're standing up on the bus.

That leaves RIM's latest BlackBerry, the Bold, which will hit store shelves over the next month. On paper, like all the handsets in this class, there is little to separate it from its peers. In size, weight, features and screen resolution it's comparable to all contenders but, like the N96, it doesn't have a touch screen.

However, the few lucky executives who've had their hands on the device have been singing its praises. Like the iPhone, the Bold is RIM's first fully-fledged foray into the 3G world, which means the Bold is fast.

Aficionados of the iPhone will baulk at the Bold as it doesn't display web pages like you'd see them on a personal computer. But the stripped-down version of the internet means access is quick and data-downloading is cheaper. The Bold continues RIM's melding of a QWERTY keyboard with a form factor suited to one-handed use.

So if the boss won't let you have an iPhone 3G, there really aren't many reasons to despair. While the Apple handset does the web very well and has consumer cachet, when it comes to making calls or performing work tasks, there are comparable or better options around.

In the corporate world, the iPhone isn't the top of the heap - it's the Bold that will attract envy in the boardroom or business-class lounge.

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Tags new technologiestelephonyApplemobile technologymobilityiPhoneTelecommunications

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