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Using Super Smartphones for Productivity

There isn’t an industry definition of a “smartphone,” nor is there an industry definition of “super smartphone,” but the implication with both terms is clear—these are devices that do more than just facilitate communication via the phone lines. In some cases, we’re talking a lot more. One characteristic of a smartphone is that it has an operating system complete with an interface for developers to produce applications to run on that system—hence the term “app phone”. Others may characterize a smartphone as a phone that can perform tasks similar to their computer—read and send e-mail, access the web, read e-books, view and edit documents. When the lines between phone and computer blur in this manner, one might ask would you rather have a super smartphone or a netbook when it comes to ultraportable devices, and that’s a good question to ponder if you’re in the market for such a device.

I am always on the lookout for ways to maximize my own productivity through portable devices; over the years it’s been necessary in my job for me to be in contact with the office and able to access the Internet no matter where I go. I would carry the laptop wherever I went, then the netbook, and sometimes both. But I never managed to pull the trigger on a super smartphone purchase until recently, although I have been thinking about it in a serious way for almost a year.

It is not the intention of this post to provide a head-to-head comparison (or smackdown) of super smartphones, nor is it intended to foist upon you a super smartphone when you do not want or need one. Instead, my goal is briefly to document my thought process and the considerations that led to my own super smartphone purchase, and describe some of the ways in which my choice has increased my own productivity even in the short time I’ve owned it.

Step One, in which the iPhone 3GS becomes hard to resist
Since mid-2008, I knew I wanted a super smartphone. But I’ve also been around the block long enough to know that I don’t want the first generation of anything, let alone such an important purchase as a super smartphone. So I waited, and then waited some more, and then my boss got herself an iPhone and I finally got to hold one in my hands and fiddle with it. It was (and still is) a beautiful machine. Its specifications were top-notch, and it is an aesthetically pleasing device with a hefty set of applications available for download.

Unfortunately, AT&T has an exclusive deal with Apple, and I was not an AT&T customer. The fees for breaking my contact with my existing carrier would have been steep, and rumors about my existing carrier (Verizon) getting the iPhone were still going strong. I couldn’t justify the expense, or the shift to what I (and others) consider an inferior company with serious 3G coverage issues.

Step Two, in which I was ready to purchase an iPhone
After some time had passed and the release of the iPhone 3GS was a success, and despite my reservations about the AT&T 3G network, I walked in to an AT&T store [it's 250 miles to the nearest Apple store] and was ready to purchase an iPhone 3GS and switch to AT&T on the spot. There was a lot of travel in my future, and I wanted a device that would enable me to be more connected and more productive but without the need to carry the notebook or even netbook all the time. But when I visited the store all I could do was order an iPhone 3GS, and wait a few weeks for it to arrive.

I took that as a sign that it wasn’t the right time for me to purchase a super smartphone.

Step Three, in which I consider what is important to me
After my thwarted attempt to purchase an iPhone 3GS, I remembered something very important about myself: in the Mac vs PC commercials I’m John Hodgman. I’m the PC. Actually, if there were a Mac vs PC vs Linux commercial I’d be whomever they got to play the part of Linux. Probably a Finn.

Open source software, and in this case the Open Handset Alliance and the Android OS, is very important to me. All things Google are important to me because my contacts, my email, my documents, and my calendar (among other things I’m probably forgetting) reside in Google’s cloud. Put those two important things together and you get steps four and five: shopping for and then purchasing an Android phone.

I spent a lot of time researching various offerings from HTC. I paid attention to the rumors about which Android phones were going to which carriers. I compared data plans and realized no matter what I ended up with, my phone bill would just jump $30 for the data plan that would sit on top of the amount I pay for minutes. I knew the Android app marketplace had less applications in it than the iPhone app marketplace, but I also knew that would start to change. I also like the idea of a marketplace that is designed and continually improved by by its developers rather than a single corporation.

Then Verizon launched the Droid Does advertising campaign, which hit me right smack in the middle of my robot-loving heart, and I knew that the Motorola Droid was the super smartphone with my name written all over it. This was confirmed when I drove over to the Verizon store one day, said “I’d like to hold a Droid, please,” played with it, asked questions, liked the feel of it, and promptly took it home. I am thrilled with my purchase and know that I made the right decision for me. I like having two virtual and one physical keyboard. I like options.

Since then, I’ve watched with interest the reviews of the Droid, including posts such as “Zealotry sucks, and so does the Droid” and “Droid Doesn’t: It’s Not Ready For Prime Time”. If you are in the market for a super smartphone, you should read these two posts as well as anything else you can get your hands on—a super smartphone purchase is a serious commitment to a powerful device, and its operating system, available applications, and functionality should be considered in terms of what is important to you. I agree that zealotry sucks, and I am certainly not trying to do that here, but I do want to say that I have experienced none of the issues brought up in either of those two articles. It’s almost like they’re using different phones than the one I have. But that’s neither here nor there—let me tell you how I use my device for productivity.

My Productivity with a Super Smartphone
I’ve already mentioned that Google products are fully integrated into my life, and as they’re fully integrated into the Droid (and any Android-based phone) I’m always one click away from everything I could possibly need: e-mail, calendar, contacts, chat, documents, maps, GPS/voice navigation, voice-activated search, and so on. With Facebook integration my contacts list offers me several different ways to contact a user with one click—phone, message, chat/instant message, e-mail, Facebook message. I use Twidroid for Twitter, and with their new application plugin structure I expect to be able to tweet at my contacts with one click as well.

I currently have 63 different Android applications installed, and not once have I said “oh, I’d like an app that does X” and been unable to find something to fill that need. With an application like Documents to Go, I’m able to open a wide range of documents—including Microsoft Office 2007 files—and review and edit them. For instance, I was sitting in the airport the other day as my students were turning their essays in via e-mail. I was able to get their e-mailed document, and open the document and begin editing/commenting on their work within a few clicks. I can use the 5 megapixel camera to scan documents and turn them into a PDF with Scan2PDF Mobile, then e-mail that PDF to someone else all with one or two clicks in an interface that offers help and options along the way.

I know iPhone apps exist to do similar things—I’m not trying to imply that they don’t. And my Droid, as well as my friends’ iPhones, perform many other tasks than the few listed here to increase productivity and connectivity. A super smartphone, or app phone, or little bundle of electronic joy, could change your life for the better. Or it could not—it depends on how you are already oriented to an online/always-on lifestyle. But you can save money with a super smartphone (everything in that article holds true for iPhone or Android-based phones), and use apps in education as well as your everyday life.

Gideon Burton asserts “Scholarly Communications must be Mobile.” You have many options for shifting scholarly communication to your pocket, and as you consider taking that step, please do consider all of the options and do research so that you can find the device and platform that best fits your needs. If you have questions about specific devices and operating systems, leave the questions in the comments section—ProfHacker writers use a range of super smartphones and will give you an honest opinion on our experiences with them.

[The image in this post is by Flickr user tnkgrl and is licensed under a Creative Commons license. Tnkgrl has a great set of collections related to mobile devices, such as Unboxing the Motorola Droid, Unboxing the HTC Hero, and Unboxing the Apple iPhone 3G, among others.]

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