Before you go shopping for your first smartphone, you should sit down and learn what all of those geeky acronyms and tech lingo mean, starting with the word "smartphone" itself. A smartphone is a handheld communications device with multimedia capabilities. Smartphones look like bulky cell phones with a small keyboard and a large screen. In addition to making phone calls, they can browse the Web, send and receive e-mails, play music and video, view pictures and even edit and create documents.
Most new smartphones are called 3G devices, which is short for third generation. The name is a reference to the increased speed or bandwidth of 3G Internet connections. 3G smartphones operate on 3G cellular telephone networks that offer broadband-quality Internet connectivity -- download speeds of up to 1.4 megabytes per second (Mbps)-- over the airwaves. This allows 3G smartphones to browse the Web and quickly download large files anywhere in the nationwide cellular network.
Most smartphones also come with WiFi connectivity. WiFi, also known as 802.11, is the wireless networking protocol found in home wireless Internet networks, coffee shops, airports, libraries, dorm rooms and many offices. Unlike 3G Internet connections, which require the purchase of an expensive data plan with a cellular carrier, WiFi Internet access is usually free and fast. The downside to WiFi is that you have to be in close range of a WiFi router to get a signal. 3G is available almost anywhere you can make a cell phone call.
An important business feature of smartphones is their ability to synchronize or "sync" data with your office network. Every time the smartphone goes online, it communicates wirelessly with the office network, pulling in new e-mails, updating calendar entries, adding contacts that you entered on your desktop computer, and downloading any security patches sent out by the IT staff. Syncing works the other way, too. If you read an e-mail on your smartphone, the e-mail will be marked as "read" when you return to your office computer. If you add a new sales contact on the road, it will be saved on the corporate network so you can access it back at the office.
All of this syncing requires some serious backend technology. Before a company can deploy fully networked smartphones to its employees, it must install a special server at the office or sign up with a hosted service. The servers allow the IT staff to control access to the network, encrypt wireless transmissions and upload software patches and fixes to all devices simultaneously.
The most popular mobile communications server technology is Microsoft Exchange. Since many large corporate IT departments use Microsoft Exchange, it's important that your smartphone is compatible with it. Another popular mobile communications server is Lotus Domino/Notes. Many smartphones are compatible with both Exchange and Domino/Notes. Blackberry has its own technology called the Blackberry Enterprise Server. For iPhones and Android (Google) devices, there's a server called Good for Enterprise.
Now let's take a look at the plusses and minuses of each kind of mobile business communications device.