Niall Magennis, Accountancy Age, Thursday 3 June 2010 at 00:00:00

The recent slew of smartphones have made working on the go almost as easy as taking a laptop with you, but which platform is best for business and finance software?


Many employees now spend more time using their phone to check email than they do making calls. It?s hardly surprising as today?s smartphones offer a wealth of features that can help business users do more while they?re on the move. However, the current crop of smartphones use a bewildering array of operating systems, with old stalwarts like Blackberry and Microsoft being joined by young upstarts like iPhone, Android and WebOS. But, with many of these mobile platforms primarily targeted at consumers, the question is how do they square up when it comes to real business features?

Certainly in the near future Blackberry is likely to remain the number one choice, thanks to its excellent push email system and strong support from business software developers. However, Apple is likely to be a significant player. It?s starting to make inroads in the business world with the consumer appeal of the device helping to ease its path. Google, with Android, seems to be concentrating on adding consumer friendly features rather than business orientated ones and Microsoft has to hope that the next release of Windows Phone finds favour with business users and helps stem the flood of defections to other platforms.

Blackberry



Of all the mobile platforms there?s none more synonymous with the world of business than Blackberry. Developed by Research In Motion (RIM), the Blackberry platform won many fans early on as it was the first device to offer push email. Instead of users having to regularly check for new emails, the Blackberry system alerts the user as soon an email arrives.

The Blackberry user interface isn?t as slick or as straightforward as the likes of the iPhone, but the operating system offers better business features, including comprehensive support for file encryption and virtual private n etworks (VPNs), as well as strong integration with corporate email and calendar systems. Blackberry is also popular with IT departments because the devices are easier to manage.

According to Ted Schadler, principal analyst at Forrester Research: ?The Blackberry Enterprise Server is the gold standard for mobile device control, though its cost of $10 (7) per user per month is daunting.?

Good support in terms of business and financial software means the Blackberry platform is in widespread use in accountancy firms in the UK. For example, account managers at chartered accountants Taylorcocks use Blackberry devices running SalesLogix Mobile software to access its customer relationship management system when they?re out in the field. Similarly, fee-earners at accountancy firm Johnston Carmichael use their BlackBerry smartphones to relay digital dictations and instructions on client deliverables to back office staff.

Windows Phone



Microsoft may be the king of the computer desktop, but it?s had mixed fortunes with its Windows Phone operating system. Windows Phone was developed primarily for business users, so it includes corporate features such as the ability to work with VPNs, support for push email and integration with email and calendar systems like Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange. However, the operating system has been critically panned for its clunky user interface and sluggish performance.

According to Pauline Trotter, principle analyst at Ovum, the Windows Mobile platform is probably in third place in the market at present. But, Ovum?s research shows that most companies expect to be supporting fewer Windows Phone devices in the future, which doesn?t bode well for Microsoft. However, the company is due to launch a new version of the operating system with a completely redesigned interface later this year, which could reverse the slide.

Windows Phone devices come pre-installed with a mobile version of Microsoft Office productivity suite and there are also many business applications available, including apps for most of the large CRM systems on the market.

Android



Not content with dominating the worlds of internet search and online advertising, Google has now turned its attention to mobile devices with its Android operating system.

Like Microsoft with Windows Phone, Google doesn?t actually produce its own phones, but instead makes the software freely available to handset manufacturers such as Samsung, HTC, Sony and Motorola. Although not quite as polished as the iPhone, Android?s user interface is fast and easy to use. However, its the least mature of all the major mobile operating systems and business features such as native support for Microsoft Exchange email has only arrived recently.

?You get mixed messages on Android,? says Ovum?s Trotter. ?Mobile operators think Android just isn?t mature enough yet and that there aren?t enough business applications. They?re also worried about how they will support it because the support model isn?t terribly enterprise orientated. And, if you ask companies which devices they?ll support in the future the iPhone is definitely ahead of Android, but it could be that it?ll move more quickly.?

Trotter also points to the fact that the operating systems currently lacks many features that are seen as key for business, like support for VPNs and data encryption. The range of business applications available on Android is also rather limited and those that are available tend to be productivity applications, such as the QuickOffice suite.

iPhone



Before the launch of the iPhone many doubted that Apple could replicate the success of the iPod when it came to the mobile market, but the iPhone has proved to be just as spectacular a triumph, with Gartner?s sales figures for the first quarter of 2010 showing that it?s already grabbed more than 15% of the market.

The iPhone?s user interface is widely considered to be the jewel in its crown, largely because it?s just so incredibly intuitive to use. And, while the platform initially lacked enterprise friendly features, with subsequent releases Apple has added support for Microsoft Exchange email, remote wipe, hardware encryption and policy-based control. The upcoming release of version 4.0 of the operating system is also expected to introduce better controls for device management and the ability to distribute applications wirelessly to devices in the field.

?Apple is definitely starting to gain some traction [in the business market]?, says Trotter. ?There?s a lot of pressure for it to be used in enterprises, particularly at board level. I think IT managers are less enthusiastic because it?s very difficult to manage, but you do see more and more business applications for iPhone.?

Financial applications include FocalPoint from Access, along with apps for SalesForce.com and FinancialForce.com. There are also a number of business productivity suites available, including QuickOffice and DocsToGo.

Other contenders

By volume, Nokia is actually the number one smartphone supplier, with sales twice those of RIM. However, the company?s Symbian operating system is found in lots of devices that are likely to be used more for making calls than receiving emails and using business apps. Nevertheless Nokia?s E series business devices are undoubtedly popular, if not exactly lusted after, and the Nokia does offer its own push email platform.

The other significant player in the smartphones market is Palm. Last year the company launched its Palm Pre handset, which was based on its new WebOS platform. The handset was well received by critics, but sales weren?t all that impressive. Recently the company has been sold to HP, who is likely to market Palm handsets more aggressively to business users in the future.

Glossary

Virtual Private Network: Software that allows you securely connect to another computer or corporate server via the internet. Data is encapsulated, creating a virtual and private ?tunnel? through the internet, via which you can communicate without risk of your information being intercepted.

Remote Wipe: The ability to wipe vital details from your mobile phone from a remote location. Very handy if your phone is lost or stolen with sensitive corporate information on it.

Hardware encryption: More secure than software-based encryption, this often requires the user to produce a physical key in order to access the encrypted data. Meaning that, even if your phone is stolen, thieves will not be able to access your data.

Policy-based control: Access for users to various data, programs, or even bandwidth, can be allowed or restricted based on policies defined by their employer.