Which is better, the iPhone or the BlackBerry?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Sept. 6 2007 2:43 PM

The iPhone Menace

Only the BlackBerry can save our nation's productivity.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

On Wednesday, Apple cut the price of its top-of-the-line iPhone from a wallet-breaking $599 to a less-terrifying $399. This price reduction comes as reports have emerged that July sales of the iPhone outnumbered those of all other smartphones combined. With my battered, aging BlackBerry on its last legs, I went back to the Apple store to try to join the crowd and sell myself on trading brands. But after a few hours of side-by-side comparisons, I'm convinced more than ever that the iPhone isn't the device for me. I'll be replacing my BlackBerry with ... another BlackBerry. The iPhone is definitely a cool, sexy gadget. As I wrote in January, it's less a phone packed with extras than a full-fledged computer for your pocket. Its big display and touchscreen interface make Web surfing and video watching a whole lot easier than on any other smartphone. It bundles support for Gmail, AOL, and Yahoo! Mail. It doubles as an iPod. It does YouTube. And it's even more hackable than a BlackBerry. Along with this week's price drop, Apple has added a built-in iTunes Music Store, so you can buy and download tracks whenever you're in range of a Wi-Fi network. At $400, an iPhone is incredibly tempting.

But in my career as a writer, I need my phone to do work. I have tight deadlines, and I need to communicate with lots of people in a hurry. When I'm in a tight spot, my BlackBerry always helps me out. It also sends a subtle signal to my correspondents that I'm getting a lot done. An e-mail that says "Sent from my BlackBerry" gives the impression that you're on the move but still chained to work, e-mailing from the elevator. An e-mail that says "Sent from my iPhone" conjures an image of a doofus who wants you to know he has an iPhone. More important, the BlackBerry packs three crucial features that leave iPhone owners fumbling behind me.

The keyboard. The BlackBerry keyboard is an engineering wonder. I have a model with a full QWERTY keyboard rather than a downsized phone pad, and I can thumb-type my editor with one hand while hanging off the side of a San Francisco cable car with the other. iPhone's virtual on-screen keyboard is a whole lot cooler, but it loses its luster as soon as you have to meet a deadline. After hours of practice—the trick is to tap the virtual keys lightly with your fingertips, rather than trying to press down—I still mistype my own name.

The iPhone's built-in spellchecker adds to the confusion. It alternates between correcting words I don't want it to correct—my friend's nickname markc gets auto-corrected to marks—and somehow letting brazen errors slip through: I just sent an e-mail "from the Apple Stpre."

No matter how much I practice, I still need to stare at the touchscreen to type correctly. I'm sure there's someone out there who can iPhone with his eyes closed, but I've yet to meet him. Touch-typing BlackBerry users, meanwhile, are everywhere, thumbing away behind steering wheels or with their hands tucked under the conference table during meetings. Sure, we're a highway menace, but we're productive.

Contacts. In my career, fast personal networking is as important as fast computer networking. I've set up my BlackBerry with a hot button to jump to my contacts in midcall or mid-email. The iPhone's home screen, on the other hand, includes YouTube and Stocks but not the Contacts app. When you do find it, you'll see the iPhone lacks the all-in-one "spotlight" search that's built into Apple's other computers. You can only browse your contacts by first name, last name, or other categories, and you need to go back to the phone's settings screen to change the browsing order. * This looks fantastic if you have 24 contacts but falls apart when you've got 240 and aren't good at remembering people's last names. Really, anything beats having to scroll through 300 names with my finger.

AutoText. This is the secret genius feature that puts the BlackBerry over the top. On both SMS and e-mail, my BlackBerry lets me create my own shorthand. For example, if I type sl and then press the spacebar, the sl automatically changes to Slate, saving me from having to reach for the Shift key and three extra letters. While hustling down the sidewalk, I can quickly thumb "il mt u n cn at the ca st ccc" to send the message "I'll meet you and Christina at the California Street cable car." Rather than resort to childish SMS argot ("c u @ cbl cr k?"), I can type for five seconds, yet still get my point across in full-length, clear English.

The iPhone does have two advantages I wish BlackBerry would catch up with. First, it's a true multitasking computer. If I try to load a Web page on my BlackBerry browser while I'm in the middle of a phone call, I get an error message telling me to wait until the call is done. The iPhone can use a Wi-Fi connection to let me surf while still talking. Second, Apple forced AT&T to break with tradition on voicemail. The iPhone's Visual Voicemail feature lets iPhone users scan a text list of all voicemail messages in their inbox and jump to any of them in any order. AT&T won't let me do that on a BlackBerry. Neither will anyone else.

Aside from the obvious benefits of Visual Voicemail, it's hard to conjure a scenario in which any of the iPhone's gee-whiz features will help you get any work done. Multitouch is fun to play around with, and it's neat to rotate the screen from portrait to landscape. I'm skeptical that either feature will ever help me meet a deadline. Apple hasn't yet succeeded in turning its fetish object into a productivity tool, but BlackBerry's maker, Research in Motion, has done the reverse. The company made its business tool into a fetish object by starting with functionality (check out the original model) and gradually growing into sexy shapes like the Pearl and the Curve.

While I can't imagine ditching my BlackBerry for an iPhone, I'm clearly in the minority. That worries me. Whenever I visit a tech company here in Silicon Valley, the work focus is inevitably disrupted by some dork who whips out his Apple phone for a demo. (Yes, I've seen the thing you can do with two fingers on the photos. No, I don't want to see it again.) If the sales stats mean that professionals are replacing their handsets en masse, iPhone could be the biggest productivity hit to American business since that Dancing Baby video. We've got to do something—but first let me take this call.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Correction, Sept. 6, 2007: This article originally implied that the iPhone can only sort your contacts by last name. It can sort by first name, last name, and other categories. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Paul Boutin is a writer living in San Francisco.