Smart Phones: Smart for Planners? - 2005-08-01

No longer just for the gadget nut, smart phones have finally broken through to mobile business users like meeting planners.

A smart phone lets you do everything you can do with a cell phone, plus much of what you can do with a laptop. In addition to voice communications, smart phones also offer Web and e-mail access, plus personal digital assistant (PDA) functionality like personal organizers, calendars, and "synching" to key applications like Outlook. Many offer keyboards for writing e-mails or editing documents. Smart phones also provide speaker phones, built-in cameras, Bluetooth wireless connectivity, and built-in storage for pictures, voice mail, and music.

But smart phones account for only a fraction of the hundreds of millions of phones sold each year. One issue is price. Smart phones like the Treo 650 or Blackberry 7520 typically cost $300 to $500, even with a two-year contract—a far cry from the give-away cell phones most carriers offer. Purchase price is only part of a smart phone's cost; your monthly bill may double with data services like e-mail and Web access, although carriers offer flat-rate data plans.

And although health issues have not been linked to cell-phone radiation, a pair of popular smart phones, the Treo 650 and the Sony Ericsson P910, are on cnet.com's list of highest-radiation cell phones.

Finally, smart phones are bigger and clunkier than svelte cell phones. Greta Cohen, a vice president at Countrywide in Calabasas, CA, describes talking on her Blackberry phone without an earpiece as "like holding a calculator up to your ear." The bigger, feature-laden smart phones are essentially two-handers, making them harder to use while driving. Yet the convenience of getting your calls, e-mails, and Web access from one always-with-you device can make smart phones compelling. Packing even the largest smart phone is much lighter than lugging a laptop.

Perhaps the two best known smart phones are the Blackberry and the Treo 650. The Treo is available for GSM networks (like Cingular) and CDMA networks (like Verizon). It weighs 6.3 ounces, offers 360 minutes of talk time, and includes a keyboard for typing, a stylus for clicking on-screen icons, Bluetooth wireless connectivity, a speaker phone, Palm OS, and a camera. It sells for about $600, but Verizon Wireless offers it for $399 with activation and a two-year plan.

Blackberries have morphed from two-way pagers to smart phones. Available on many networks, the Blackberry 7250 through Verizon is $299 with a two-year contract. It weighs five ounces and offers up to 198 minutes of talk time. Although some complain about its wide body and allegedly dim screen, corporate types will appreciate its ability to receive e-mail and corporate data, the thumb dial to spin through e-mails, its ability to hook up to six different types of attachments, and excellent keyboard.

A third smart phone may finally be available in the U.S. in the coming months: the Nokia 9300. The six-ounce 9300 looks like a large candy bar but flips open like a laptop, revealing a wide screen and a big keyboard. It will be available only for GSM networks (like T-Mobile and Cingular), and will sell for around $500.

When I went on a recent business trip to India, I truly missed my smart phone. When my Air India flight was canceled, resulting in the loss of all my connecting flights and hotel room, a smart phone with Internet access would have been a lifesaver.