Dial in the perfect smart phone

Smart phones have become the device of choice for public-sector managers who need ubiquitous connections to cell phone networks, e-mail servers, the Internet, agency calendars and core business applications. But as the lines blur among models designed exclusively for business users and those with a glitzy consumer bent, finding the right handset can be tricky.

Choose correctly and you’ll stay connected and productive from virtually anywhere. Shortchange the selection process and you could end up with a hard-to-use handheld that exposes an agency to dangerous security holes. The choice is all the more important because once people adopt a smart phone, it becomes an extension of their lives at,  and away from, work.

“You’ve got to realize that it’s going to be what you check before you go to bed and the first thing you check when you get up in the morning,” said Paul Christy, chief technology officer at the Small Business Administration, which provides smart phones to roughly 10 percent of its 5,000 employees. “You really can’t stop thinking about it once you get one of these.”
 
Wide choices
The term smart phone once referred primarily to cell phones with business-productivity applications based on the Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system. Closely related were personal digital assistants, primarily e-mail and messaging devices with electronic calendars and contact lists, such as BlackBerrys from Research in Motion (RIM) and Palm’s PalmPilots.

As differences blur, smart phones are becoming synonymous with a wide variety of voice-capable handhelds that manage e-mail, offer Short Message Service (SMS) texting, Web access and an array of business programs tailored for small screens.

Through the General Services Administration’s Networx program, government executives can choose from dozens of devices supported by Apple, Palm, RIM and Windows Mobile operating systems.

Because managers’ needs vary, buying the current hot handheld doesn’t guarantee the right fit for everyone. Smart-phone users and analysts said managers need to find the right combination of platforms, personal needs, interface features and security capabilities.

Start with the platform
The first step should be a visit to the information technology department to see which communication platforms the agency’s technology staff supports.

Managers can circumvent IT policies by directly signing a service plan and receiving a phone from a carrier, but this approach blocks managers from agency device-management policies and could keep them out of step with security patches and other updates, said Sean Ryan, a research analyst at IDC’s Mobile Enterprise unit.

Next, managers should shop for the best service plans available for agency-supported platforms. “Buy the service first, and the device comes as a match to the service,” said Jim Russo, GSA telecommunications manager. The GSA Networx Web page lists service providers and available voice and data options. It also has a cost estimator.

In addition to comparing rates and coverage strength for local areas, frequent international travelers should investigate the agreements domestic service providers have with overseas telecommunications for efficient signal handoffs.

“You want seamless integration so when you step off your plane in Frankfurt, [Germany,] the smart phone immediately picks up and negotiates a signal locally,” Christy said. International travelers will also need a Subscriber Identity Module chip so phones can work on broadcasting bands common in other countries.

Christy added that international travelers should also opt for plans that charge a fixed monthly rate for calls made overseas to avoid prohibitively expensive per-minute roaming f ees.

Device must-haves
With platform and plan decisions in place, managers can evaluate which available hardware best fits their work needs. Executives who regularly access e-mail and use text messaging will need a
QWERTY keyboard and a screen large enough for easy reading. Those who primarily communicate via voice might forgo these features and benefit from the smaller size and longer battery life typical of more compact devices.

Managers who require full-sized keyboards should test different designs to find one that’s comfortable. This step is especially important for business users smitten by Apple’s new, lower-cost iPhone 3G, which uses a touch-screen keypad instead of raised mechanical keys. 

“Some people may find [touch screens] more difficult to use, such as engineers and the guys working in the field who can’t feel what they are doing through their gloves,” said Rakesh Mahajan, director of mobility at BT Global Services, a wireless management services provider for large organizations.

Security considerations also need to factor into the selection, given recent incidents involving lost or stolen government-owned laptop computers. To guard against unauthorized access to contact lists and other sensitive information, look for smart phones that are certified by Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2, said Josh Mulloy, a mobile wireless specialist at technology distributor CDW Government.

Performance flexibility is another important factor. A growing number of smart phones support dual-mode communications — those that operate with cellular networks and 802.11 Wi-Fi connections.
Analysts said the advantages of phone-based Wi-Fi include faster transmission rates than cellular service for exchanging data files and the cost savings users enjoy when they can avoid using cellular minutes or incurring out-of-network roaming charges by accessing an enterprise local-area network or public hot spot. Wi-Fi can also overcome physical obstructions or range restrictions that thwart cellular coverage.

In addition to these core features, buyers of smart phones should also consider how easily devices can be tethered to laptop computers to act as a broadband cellular modem. However, users will need to add a special data option to their service plans to enable this capability, Mulloy said.

Given considerations like these, which smart phone is currently a federal government best-seller? The runaway leader, GSA’s Russo said, is the BlackBerry 8830, a model that offers a sleek design, a navigation trackball and support for cellular networks popular outside of the United States.

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