If your company is in the market for a new cell phone carrier and handset standard, one of the issues to consider is how well the mobile device works with Microsoft’s Exchange email servers.
Mobile Exchange support has been improving over the past several years, but there are various subtle differences that are worth considering to guide your corporate purchase plans.
There are four major mobile phone product families that offer Exchange clients: Windows Mobile, Apple iPhone, Research in Motion BlackBerry, and various Google Android suppliers.
In the past year, Android phones have been taking market share away from Blackberry. And numerous suppliers, including Google, have introduced models. However, not every phone within a particular family works the same way with Exchange.
(See section later in this article on getting to the bottom of cell phone data plans.)
If all you are looking for is synchronizing your emails, contacts and calendars between desktop and phone, just about all devices will provide this. The trouble comes when your users demand more, such as being able to search all their server-based messages, lookup addresses in the server address list, make appointments that are kept private, and reply to meeting requests on your phone. This is where things start to get a bit dicey among the various phones.
Microsoft calls the feature that supports mobile Exchange clients Active Sync. It’s a piece of software that has to be licensed for a particular phone operating system and works in conjunction with the Exchange server to keep your emails, contacts, and appointments up to date on your mobile device.
One of the newer features that have been implemented by Exchange 2010 is called Direct Push, which enables Exchange to push messages out to the phone on a selected schedule.
The best Exchange client — not surprisingly — is the Window Mobile phone family. They offer the most complete feature list and the most fidelity with your desktop Outlook client.
The downside is that they are subpar phones, and carriers have a limited selection of them too. The combination of smaller screen real estate and nested menus within menus makes their use for voice calls cumbersome.
The Blackberry family is second best. Its Exchange client has been around almost from the beginning, and had its own version of Direct Push for its own messaging network since day one. There is a wide selection of phone handsets and all four of the major US wireless carriers sell them, some at close to no cost if a two-year contract is signed at the time of purchase. Last week Blackberry announced a new model, its first touch-screen phone, with AT&T.
Apple’s iPhone is third best for its Exchange support. Its client is missing the ability to create private appointments or synchronize tasks from the phone itself. The other limitation is that it currently is only available on AT&T, so if your corporate preferred carrier is someone else, you’re out of luck.
On the plus side, there are a number of iPhone apps that enhance the built-in features, such as from RerlSoft, which allows you more access to Exchange data such as notes and tasks.
If you don’t have AT&T or don’t want to deal with Blackberries, your only other solution is to make use of one of the Android phones. Google has been busy updating its Android OS. If you can get a phone that is running at least version 2.0 or better, you’ll be happier with the phone’s responsiveness and features.
If you purchase the Verizon-based Droid Incredible, it has ActiveSync built in. Otherwise, the other Android phones are for the most part missing any Exchange client. You’ll have to purchase some additional software to make it work properly.
You have lots of choices, including:
• NitroDesk’s TouchDown Exchange ($20)
Touchdown is the most full-featured and offers nearly all the features found in the Windows mobile clients, with the exception of task searching. But they are continually improving their app and making it as feature-rich as possible.
If you go the Android route, make sure your phones work with your particular version of Exchange server and carrier. Some have been slow to support Exchange 2010. Some carriers, such as AT&T, don’t allow third-party app downloads from Google’s Android App Marketplace.
Smartphone Data Plans
Figuring out your mobile Exchange support is actually the easy part. It gets more complicated if you’re thinking about switching carriers and are trying to figure out what the cost of their data plans are.
Information isn’t easy to come by, and the numerous plans and restrictions on type of phone and monthly usage are headache-inducing.
We’ve tried to sort it out for you and at least give you a starting point for each of the four major carriers. Figure on anywhere from $20 to $60 a month for data on top of what you normally pay for your voice plan. Most data plans do not include text messaging: this carries an additional charge typically.
And of course carriers are constantly changing plan specifics so it is hard to keep track.
AT&T has this PDF rate chart you can download here that has more than a page of fine print conditions.
If you’re an existing iPhone customer, you can continue your unlimited data plan, otherwise with a new plan you’ll have a usage limit of 2 GB. There are two corporate data plans at $40 and $60 a month, depending on whether you want tethering. (Tethering is the ability to connect your laptop to the phone and use the phone broadband connection.)
T-Mobile’s data plans can be found here. They have two price points: $40 a month without a contract, $50 with a two-year contract. That sounds backwards, until you realize that you will pay less for the phones with the contract. But it still might be cheaper — if you have a lot of data users — to purchase your own phones outside of a T-Mobile contract. There are separate plans for Blackberry and smartphones that include unlimited data, otherwise there are capacity limits on usage.
To get Sprint’s data plans you first have to enter your zip code here. For my area, I could get a $60 a month plan that included unlimited data access on both their 3G and 4G networks.
Verizon’s data plans can be found here. They have different plans depending on what device you connect and how. They support tethering for $20 a month, and if you have a voice plan you can get 5 GB of usage a month for $50.