Job number one at BlackBerry: Beat Windows Phone 8

Going by the headlines and the tone of the news coverage, BlackBerry’s long-awaited product announcement went well.

The company’s – Research in Motion changed its name – new slab-like Z10 smartphones are already on sale in the UK with Canada to follow next week and the US soon after.

New Zealand is probably well down the list. By the time the new phones get here we’ll know if the company has a future. I wouldn’t put money on it.

A more traditional BlackBerry model with a tiny QWERTY keyboard, the Q10, is due to go on sale in April. If the Z10 fails to catch fire, then the Q10 will be the company’s last roll of the dice.

BlackBerry’s short-term goal will be to beat Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 into third place in the smartphone market behind Android and Apple. If it gets there, it has a chance of staying relevant.

The ace up BlackBerry’s sleeve is a large pool of dedicated crackberry addicts. Some have waited until now to upgrade their existing phones. If BlackBerry can win this market, it’ll stay in the game long enough to take a shot at Microsoft. 

Most observers will tell you the lack of available apps for the new phones is a barrier. That’s less of a problem than you might think. There may be more than a million iPhone apps, but 99% are rubbish. It is more important to have the right apps for the target market.

Windows Phone 8 smartphones like the Nokia Lumia 920 are arguably better than competing Apple or Android models at the moment. They’re selling well, but have failed to make the critical breakthrough. BlackBerry won’t make that any easier.

Microsoft will survive even if it fails in the smartphone game, BlackBerry doesn’t have the advantage of alternative product lines to bail it out. Nor does Nokia.

Windows Phone 8, Android – long haul comparison

Hokianga Harbour

Hokianga harbour captured by the HTX One X camera

Is Nokia’s Lumia 920 really better than my earlier smartphone? There’s only one way to make sure: run the HTC One X through a similar non-scientific test. 

After two months running around New Zealand with a Nokia Lumia 920, I dragged my HTC One X out of the cupboard for a week of work, a weekend of play and a four-day Hokianga road trip.

No, there’s nothing wrong with the Lumia or with Windows Phone 8. My plan was to revisit my earlier phone to better understand the merits and failings of both smartphones and their operating systems.

Odious comparison?

The HTC One X is six months older than the Nokia Lumia 920. That’s a long time in smartphone development –  the smartphone market goes though roughly one generation every nine months. There’s now a HTC One X+ which would possibly be a better benchmark.

Still, the comparison is valid because I’ve used both daily for extended periods and know them well.

To save you from wading through text, I’ll tell you now, after two weeks with the HTC One X, I’m keen to get back to the Lumia 920. On balance the Lumia 920 is a better, smarter, more useful phone. Better, but by less than I imagined. The comparison forced me to reconsider assumptions.

Obvious comparisons like smartphone weight

HTC’s One X weighs in at just 130 grams compared to a hefty 185 grams for the Lumia 920.

I won’t pretend the difference isn’t noticeable  At times I forgot the One X was in my pocket, that simply doesn’t happen with the Lumia 920. However in practice the weight difference matters less than I expected. The only time it was an issue was when I wore lightweight shorts with small pockets.

While the One X has a fractionally larger screen, the Lumia 920 has more pixels. Like with the weight, the on-paper difference is less noticeable in practice than you might imagine.

Nokia’s screen does a better job of displaying blacks and for most of the time I found it easier to read. It is clearly a better screen in sunlight. Nokia wins this comparison by a slim margin.

The Lumia 920 has greater battery capacity at 2000 mAh compared to 1800 mAh for the One X.

Both are good to go all through the working day so long as you don’t watch much video. Nokia has another slight edge – there was plenty left after 10 hours leisurely touring the roads from Auckland to Wellington using the phone’s maps and GPS. Although it got me from Auckland to Hokianga, the One X would have died by Foxton on the Wellington trip.

Lumia 920, great camera

There’s no question the Lumia 920 has a better camera – I’ve yet to see anything on a standard smartphone that beats the 8.7 megapixels with image stabilisation. Nokia wins that department hands down.

You could almost stop the comparison at this point. I used the HTC One X camera to take news pictures at media events for more than six months and was happy with what I saw. The Lumia is miles ahead, especially when taking decent quality shots in difficult conditions – let’s face it journalists usually take photographs in difficult conditions.

Hidden charms

Windows Phone 8 integrates neatly into a Microsoft world. WP8 mail works well with Outlook.com on the desktop, calendar and address book information syncs neatly. The same is true of Android and the Google world. Gmail is ugly on the Lumia 920 – and thanks to Google bloody-mindedness routing it through Outlook.com is a problem.

On the other hand, the Microsoft world works just fine with an Android phone. I didn’t expect to find Microsoft much more open than Android – in a practical everyday sense and not in a strict  technical sense. However, that’s just what I found. I also found the Microsoft world meshes better with my iPad.

Google’s world – OK call it ecosystem if you must – is as necessary for my work as Microsoft’s technology stack. On this count, I’d say the HTC One X has a small advantage but if I didn’t need to use Google’s technology, it wouldn’t be my first choice.

Surprises

HTC One X, Nokia Lumia 920

HTC One X, Nokia Lumia 920

Much has been written elsewhere about Google’s Play Store having gazillions of applications and Microsoft’s store having only three and a half. In practice, this simply isn’t the issue some think. At least most of the time.

Sure I found it frustrating that certain tasks which I can do easily with Android apps – like switch off the phone for eight hours overnight – can’t be easily done with Windows Phone. Disappointingly my bank has an Android app but not a Windows Phone app – are you listening Westpac?

Yet apart from minor niggles, I missed nothing serious except the apps that hook you into the Google world. There’s no Gmail or Google Drive. Let’s be frank, Google’s gaming on this issue is not endearing.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but Nokia’s maps and Drive app are, er, streets ahead of Google’s lacklustre offerings. They are easier to use and less battery draining. I can hear the driving instructions clearly in a car filled with talking adults – that’s not the case with Google Maps and the HTC One X.

On the other hand Internet Explorer 10 is a dog on the smartphone. If I go to a page with images half the time they don’t load – what’s that about? There’s no InPrivate mode and the bookmarks are badly handled. Android’s browser is better out of the box and there are alternatives.

What else?

Until I switched back to Android, I thought the live tiles on the Windows Phone 8 home screen were just, er, window dressing. I missed them a lot while I was using the Android phone. If I have to move off Windows Phone 8 in the future I’ll want something similar. I also like the dynamic lock screen, mine is set to download images from Bing each day so there’s always something fresh and interesting to look at.

Speaking of Bing, that’s the default search option on Windows Phone 8 and it isn’t as good as Google for hunting things down. I find myself loading Google and doing my searches all over again – that’s simply not good enough.

Where does this leave me?

On points the Nokia Lumia 920 beats the HTC One X by a clear margin – at least for my requirements, your’s could be different. There are minor niggles, but software updates and new apps could quickly reduce these. As soon as I’ve finished writing this piece, my Sim card is going back into the Lumia. It’ll stay there until the next test phone arrives at Bennett Towers.

Although Nokia and Microsoft are winning sales, the smartphone OS is very much in third place behind iOS and Android. That could mean developers and others will lose interest in it, maybe not immediately, but if or when the upward trajectory flattens. I could be stuck with an orphan and moving to Android or iOS at some future date could be traumatic.

That doesn’t bother me too much. The phone will carry on doing what it does now and anyway, technology is by nature transitory. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Nokia Lumia 920: Flying business class

Lumia 920 business phone

Lumia 920 business phone

Smartphones scare the pants off IT managers. Pesky employees insist on bringing their toys for work and then they have the nerve to demand access to business systems.

‘Toys’ was a deliberate word choice. Smartphone makers emphasise play in their marketing. It’s all about the audio experience, high-definition video or playing games. Work gets mentioned in the small print.

None of this sends a comforting message to IT managers.

Bring your own pain

Companies struggle with BYOD or bring-your-own-device. It means a roll call of things to keep technology professionals from sleeping at night. Security has them waking in a cold sweat while few bounce out of bed in the morning relishing the challenge of integrating devices originally designed for consumers with business technology.

Nokia’s Lumia 920 isn’t immune from this. Microsoft emphases Windows Phone 8’s social media integration, while the first screen you see firing up a new Lumia 920 has tiles for Xbox, music and Angry Birds.

Yet while there’s clearly a fun side to Nokia’s Lumia 920, it is also a first-rate business tool. It’s designed around the Microsoft operating system businesses have used for the best part of a generation.

Windows Phone 8, business pedigree

Windows Phone 8 has the same digital DNA as the kit running on company desktops and in server rooms. IT professionals may not always be deliriously happy with everything Microsoft, but they know what to expect. It’s safe. It’s predictable. It’s not risk-free, but it is lower risk. Relationships are already in place. Microsoft support is a known quantity and managers face fewer challenges integrating the phone with existing vendors and service providers.

To be fair, iPhones and Androids also do a good job integrating with business IT services. However, they often need middleware, tailored applications and kludges along the way. While you might think that’s no big deal – IT professionals often hate that stuff, it means risk. Although there’s a place for risk in business, that place is not the technology department.

Goldilocks operating system

Unlike Apple’s iOS or the soon-to-be-released Blackberry 10 software from RIM, Windows Phone 8 isn’t tied to a single hardware maker. Choice of supplier reduces risk. If Nokia falls over, changes strategy or acts weird, HTC or Samsung Windows Phone 8 devices are pretty good. They can fill the gap.

IT managers prefer it when they can buy kit from more than one company, apart from less risk, it gives them more scope to negotiate prices. It also means not being locked into a single company’s product cycle and cost structure.

Android offers business buyers enough choice, but the OS is fragmented – there are several versions in the wild. It seems a new Android OS arrives which each new wave of hardware. And many Android phones come with overlays. Individual Android owners are happy with this, but it can a nightmare from a company support point of view. And is a moving target for custom-made apps.

Security

And then there’s security. Windows Phone 8 is secure with kernel signing and applications are sandboxed – they have to win Microsoft certification before being allowed in the Windows store. That reduces choice and can slow the speed at which new apps appear, but, once again, it means less risk.

Unlikely though it may seem, even the kid’s corner feature makes Windows Phone 8 more attractive to IT managers. Parents can let their offspring play with phones without their little darlings hopping on the company ERP system and ordering 10 truckloads of software drinks to a dairy in Waipukurau.

Leverage

One of the most compelling arguments in favour of Windows Phone 8 for business users is that the smartphone operating system makes it easy to squeeze more from existing investments in Microsoft software. The Lumia 920 comes with a built-in version of Microsoft Office.

For companies using Office this means documents and templates can move seamlessly from phone to desktop with few surprises along the way. There’s no need to relearn or otherwise disrupt processes and practices. Everything is familiar – that’s not always a good thing, not everyone loves Microsoft Office – but it reduces risk. Exchange, Sharepoint and Linc are also supported out of the box.

This makes Windows Phone 8 a natural choice for any sized organisation that’s already spent money with Microsoft. But there’s more for IT professionals because you’ll find mobile device management features such as the ability to remotely check which applications are stored on a device and even remotely trigger application updates. Rolling out business apps from SharePoint servers is also a breeze.

Sound’s familiar?

If nothing in the last three paragraphs rings a bell, then the Lumia 920 probably won’t make it on the shortlist when your business picks a new fleet smartphone. But for companies already locked into Microsoft’s world, it’s an easy, low-risk choice. The biggest risk in choosing the Lumia 920 is that Windows Phone 8 flounders and you’re left down a dead-end. That’s easily fixed the next time you need to refresh mobile technology.

Travelling with Lumia 920

On the Interislander New Year's Eve 2012After a month of using Nokia’s Lumia 920 as a business tool, it was time to give the phone a workout away from home. We took it on a summer road trip from Auckland to Nelson and Golden Bay via Wellington, Wanganui and the Wairarapa.

How did it fare?

Nokia Drive

Driving between New Zealand cities is relatively uncomplicated – there aren’t that many options and most routes are both direct and obvious. So it looked like Nokia Drive wouldn’t help much. This was true for most of the trip.

We had overseas visitors and wanted to show off the countryside so took less travelled routes, from Auckland to Wellington going down State Highway 4 through Wanganui. Interestingly Nokia Drive identified this as an alternative route and clocked it at about 10 minutes longer than sticking with State Highway 1.

I didn’t need directions en route, so turned the phone’s sound off.  I barely looked at it except when we stopped a few clicks out of Wanganui at a café – I needed to gauge the distance to the nearest petrol station.

Much to everyone’s amusement and to no-one’s surprise, Nokia Maps and the GPS did a fine job letting us know exactly where we were as we travelled on the Interislander ferry.

Useful directions

Our return journey took us across the Rimatukas and along State Highway 2 via Stonehenge Aotearoa and Mount Bruce Bird Sanctuary. We spend more time than planned at these attractions and at a coffee stop in Carterton which put us behind schedule.

It has been a long time since I last navigated around Palmerston North and Feilding, so I turned to Nokia Drive for instructions and was lead on what seemed like a merry dance around industrial estates and link roads – something that would have been a nightmare with conventional map reading.

Battery life

Sightseeing meant long days on the road – 12 hours driving on at least two occasions. The Lumia coped fine and there was plenty of juice left on arrival. I’d always assumed GPS and mapping was a drain on power but it didn’t seem to worry the phone at all.

We had a hire car on the South Island that had its own GPS – Nokia Drive was almost identical. We suspect the commands used the same voice, although one slightly posh female pommy announcer sounds much like another. What’s more impressive is Nokia Drive comes as standard with the phone, a standalone device would cost hundreds of dollars.

Charging Lumia 920 without wires

Nokia Lumia 920 with wireless charger

Nokia Lumia 920 with wireless charger

There’s a lot to be said for getting wires out of the way of digital devices – for one thing it makes them mobile. A smartphone wouldn’t be much use if you needed to jack it in every time you make a call or check Facebook. And let’s not forget Mobile networks, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth all cut down the need for cable spaghetti.

Despite all this, you still need to connect a phone to a wall socket to give them juice. At least you did. That’s about to change with wireless charging.

Nokia is the first phone maker to deliver a smartphone that can recharge its batteries without being plugged in. In fact, there’s no longer any need to physically connect a cable to the Lumia 920.

This is done by magnetic induction.  Induction tops up your phone battery when the charging pad converts current into an alternating electromagnetic field. The phone then converts this back to a current to charge the battery.  If that sounds too complex, just remember it’s the same as the charging technology used by wireless toothbrushes.

Hot stuff

Nokia’s wireless charging is about 90% as efficient as using a wire charger and some of the lost energy converts to heat – this means the phone can get warm during charging. In testing I found the phone was noticeably warm, but not alarmingly hot. Certainly nothing like enough to burn.

It’s a simple enough business – although as we will see there are traps for young players.

Nokia’s DT-900 charging plate is a little smaller than the Lumia 920. It comes with a weirdly wide electrical plug – if you use a multi-socket or a distribution board it has to sit in the left-most outlet. This connects to the plate. You simply sit your phone on the plate to start charging. A white LED lights on the plate and the phone bleeps to let you know everything is working.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, for the first day I had the device I thought it wasn’t working because I was using the plate upside down. The orientation isn’t immediately obvious – in fact, counterintuitively, the bottom face is slightly smaller than the top.

Simple

With that confusion behind me it was all plain sailing. Or should that be plain charging? I found it takes slightly longer to charge using the plate than a direct cable – but only a few minutes. The phone can go from almost discharged to a full charge in under two hours.

Nokia’s documentation says you can leave the pad switched on when you’re not charging as it draws hardly any power when not in use. If that bothers you, then it’s not hard to flick the wall switch.

Easy, not entirely wire free

Not entirely wire free

Not entirely wire free

To be blunt, placing the phone on the mat isn’t that much less effort than plugging in a cable. And let’s face it, the charging plate has wires, so you’re not entirely wire free. But there’s no need to worry about having the right cable – I’ve six incompatible USB connectors sitting my desk drawer, finding the right one in a hurry can be stressful.

The good news is that Nokia’s charging plate uses the Qi standard. That means it’ll work with other devices. It’s still early days for Qi, other phone makers are preparing to launch Qi models and over time you’ll see tablets and other gizmos built around the same standard. Even better news is there are plans to install Qi charging mats in public places – so you’ll be able to charge while on the move. There’s no news on when or if these public chargers will reach New Zealand.

This story will also appear at Scoop Techlab.

Content Note: This post has been enabled by Telecom NZ , but the thoughts are the blogger’s own. Find out more about the Nokia Lumia 920 here you can find our more about Windows 8 on the Telecom Network here. Scoop TechLab is a project of Scoop Independent Media www.scoop.co.nz. It is edited by Scoop Editor Alastair Thompson.