June 06, 2011

Smartphone Buying Guide

Stephen Stine

The popularity of smartphones has skyrocketed in the last few years, and lawyers have rapidly incorporated them into their law practices. According to the 2009 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report, 77 percent of respondents reported the availability of smartphones at their law firms (up from 55 percent in the 2007 survey), and 64 percent reported personal use of them (up from 38 percent in the 2007 survey).

With smartphone models and features evolving at a quick pace,it can be hard to determine what distinguishes one from another. Here are some differentiating factors to consider when shopping for a smart phone:

Operating systems

Smartphones can be broadly categorized by their operating system. Major smartphone operating systems include Apple's iPhone OS, Research in Motion's BlackBerry OS, Palm's webOS, Google's Android, Microsoft's Windows Mobile and Symbian.

Apple's iPhone and Google's Android are widely considered as the most innovative consumer-oriented phones. However, they lack the sophisticated business security and centralized maintenance features of BlackBerry phones. This limitation could change in the future--as the popularity of these phones, incombination with the wide base of available developers, could spur the development of more business-oriented security features fo those systems. In the meantime, at least one law firm has banned the use of iPhones due to security concerns.

The operating system determiens the range of functions a smartphone can perform. For example, the iPhone OS has limited multitasking capabilities—with a few exceptions, only one application can be used at a time. This limitation is even highlighted in television commercials by a competing smart phone maker.

Software Applications

Smart phones are also distinguished by their available software. IPhones have been popular with consumers because of the wide variety of downloadable software applications, more commonly known as "apps," available via the Apple iTunes App Store. Some of the apps that may be of particular use to lawyers include a LexisNexis "Get Cases and Shepardize" app, a Fastcase legal research app, several rules of evidence apps and many other apps to enhance productivity.

While their offerings are less robust than Apple’s, there are other stores selling apps, such as the Android Market, BlackBerry App World and Windows Mobile Marketplace.

Microsoft Office remains the most common software package for business use, and Windows Mobile smart phone users can use Windows Office Mobile to work on Word, Excel and PowerPoint files. A competing third-party app, Documents to Go, enables similar use of Office files (as well as PDFs) for non-Windows smart phones, including the iPhone and Android. Some non-Windows phones also can communicate with Microsoft Exchange servers to enable certain Microsoft Outlook functionalities such as e-mail and calendaring.

Models and features

Smart phone features and capabilities can vary widely from model to model, even between phones using the same kind of operating system. Among Android OS phones, the HTC Droid Eris has "multi-touch" functionality enabled right out of the box. Google Nexus One phone users were recently provided with similar multi-touch functionality through a downloadable update. But many other phones, such as the Motorola Droid, currently do not support multi-touch functionality.

Other differentiating features of smart phones include battery life, keyboard quality and screen resolution. Regarding keyboards, BlackBerrys have a reputation for sturdy, relatively easy-to-use physical keyboards, while other smart phones—like the iPhone, Google Nexus One and HTC Droid Eris— only have virtual, on-screen keyboards, . which some users find difficult to use. Rare among phones, the Motorola Droid offers both a slide-out physical keyboard as well as a virtual keyboard.

Coverage and carriers

A smart phone’s wireless coverage and speed, contract terms and level of customer service can all vary based on its wireless carrier and the carrier’s location. Wireless coverage and speed matter to consumers, and service providers have been particularly aggressive in marketing their purported coverage, as evidenced by AT&T's recent lawsuit over Verizon ads comparing the two carriers' 3G networks. Even among providers using similar 3G networks, some consumers report difficulties using certain 3G networks.

Some phones require users to sign up with a specific provider. For example, officially, iPhones can only be used with a wireless plan from AT&T.

Beware that different carriers charge different contract termination fees.

For example, Verizon's early termination fee for canceling certain two-year smart phone contracts starts at $350, while the termination fee for AT&T iPhone wireless plans starts at a more modest $175.

To learn more about smart phones, check out the following:

This article first appeared in YourABA e-newsletter, a monthly publication distributed via email to all ABA members.  Learn more about the benefits of belonging to the American Bar Association.

Stephen Stine