Microsoft vs Google: clash of the titans

boxing_gloveA question that comes up fairly regularly in the small business world is how to handle email. Most companies start out with a simple POP account, or maybe even a free address from Google, Yahoo, or MSN. It’s an easy way to get started, but at some point you need more – integration with smart phones, shared calendars, links with company software, better security, and more.

Many companies are opting for Google Apps over Microsoft Exchange. It can be a good option in the right circumstances, and in fact we used Google Apps ourselves for over a year. The web portal is easy to use, the search is lightening fast, and I still miss the unique way Google organizes conversations. Google’s built-in spam filtering is excellent, and because they operate “in the cloud,” they manage the servers so you don’t have to. The downside is that if you have trouble, you are dependent on them for support. If you use a free account, good luck – it may take a while.

Microsoft Exchange is still the powerhouse in the email game, and the level of sophistication is hard to beat. It will take more technical skill to maintain your own in-house Exchange server, but if you take that on, you have far more options available to you. You can set security nearly any way you like, you can track down deliverability issues (generally difficult or impossible with a hosted solution), and most software packages that require email and calendar integration work with Exchange by default. Use a spam filtering service to keep your inbox clean, and with most services that layers in the redundancy you’d have with a hosted solution, to prevent lost email if your server or internet connection goes down.

Our Own Email: What We’ve Done

Like many companies, we started with a basic POP account. As we grew, we used some Exchange features but moved to Google Apps as our primary solution. As we continued to grow, it lacked critical features we needed, including security, integration, and ability to easily manage email settings across the company. We moved back to Exchange, and it was absolutely the right solution for us. We are operating far more efficiently, and our software is completely integrated so we can schedule and communicate with our clients seamlessly from our ticketing system.

My favorite (and unexpected) benefit of our return to Exchange? The integration with my iPhone is superb, night and day from what it was with Google Apps. I no longer have to sync my phone because it pulls directly from our server. That means that if someone in the office adds an appointment to my calendar, it’s automatically there next time I check my phone. Email and contacts too.

Can you get addicted to smart phones?

crackberryOne of my techie friends has been giving me hell ever since I got my iPhone. “It’s not a business phone,” “you are a Microsoft partner and should use Windows mobile,” “it can’t work with Windows,” “why do you need all those goofy apps anyway.”

Guess who just got a BlackBerry and can’t stop talking about it?

For those of you who still have regular old cell phones, you may think you’re happy, but you haven’t yet experienced true mobile bliss – GPS apps leading you to your destination, effortless email any time you are stuck in line, mobile Internet on screens large enough to be useful…the more you use it, the more useful it becomes.

Can it be addictive? Yes, absolutely – if I get bored in a meeting, it’s hard not to check email just to see what’s come in, or to text someone to keep in touch.

The other day I was visiting a client, and I checked email as I walked from one room to another. When I lifted my head up from the iPhone I suddenly realized I was in a stranger’s office. Fortunately he was very friendly, a Mac owner no less, and we had a great chat about how wonderful the iPhone is.

Shortly after reading an article about people having accidents due to intense focus on their phones rather than the world around them, I saw it in real life – a colleague had knee surgery after she tripped over a crack in the sidewalk while – you guessed it  – reading email on her BlackBerry.

The bottom line? Get a smart phone – but please be careful!

Southwest Airlines emPOWERs their travelers

Southwest Airlines power stationsComing back from a conference yesterday, I noticed a new feature Southwest is offering to tech-hungry passengers: power stations to charge your electronics! There was a lounge area with super-comfy chairs separated by small tables that contain both regular power outlets and USB plugs. I also saw tall worktables that offered up power to those who needed deskspace to spread out. My iPhone was running low on juice but the USB charger fixed that in just a few minutes.

After years of scrounging for power while waiting at the airport, this was a lovely surprise. I have to say, hats off to Southwest for such a convenient solution to a frustrating problem.

Now if only they would add power plugs inflight…(hint hint!).

The new wave of GPS-enabled applications

X Marks the SpotWhat can your smartphone do if it knows where you are? A new breed of geo-aware apps have set out to answer that question.

Most of you are familiar with GPS (global positioning system) basics: with a GPS unit or GPS-enabled smartphone, you can enter in a destination and get voice-guided prompts to lead the way. Very handy. You can even look up restaurants and local attractions. Also useful.

But this is the tip of the iceberg…check out the many new and creative uses now available:

If you are on social networking sites, many feature location-based services that will tell you if any of your friends are nearby. I’m not sure I want this much togetherness, but it seems to be a hit with the teen crowd.

A friend told me his BlackBerry GPS is so sensitive, he uses it to see how fast he’s running.

It’s a little Big-Brotherish, but many companies are using GPS to track where their drivers are, and also to ensure efficient routing. With gas prices on the rise, this can be a huge money-saver.

People are using GPS to play games, like Geocaching, a clever high-tech treasure hunt.

You can automatically tag your photos with your exact location when you upload them to Flickr, so you never forget where you got that great shot.

Saving the best for last, a colleague just shared an awesome new app: G-Park, available for the iPhone. When you park, hit the “Park Me!” button. When you come back, tap “Where Did I Park?” Such a simple solution to such a vexing problem. Gotta love it.

iPhone 2.0 – it’s all about the apps

iPhone appsEveryone’s talking – and blogging – about the latest iPhone. As one of the original owners, there on iDay 2007, how can I resist?

You may be surprised to hear I’m not buying a new phone. GPS would be nice, but the geo-tracking already built in is enough to get me un-lost when needed. The faster Internet? Well, I admit that’s tempting, and ultimately I may upgrade. But a plastic case? Really?

Actually, the best part of iPhone 2.0 isn’t the new phone, it’s the software. Fortunately all iPhone owners get it, not just the newbies. There are plenty of new features, from subtle to amazing, but the single most revolutionary change is open developer access. Programmers are now writing iPhone applications as fast as they can type.

Download new iPhone apps directly to your phone via the iTunes store. Many are free, others cost. Look for a rapidly expanding selection as more and more programmers get involved in iPhone development.

The most useful app I’ve found is the new iPhone version of Jott, a free reminder service I wrote about a while back. It records a voice message but transcribes it to a written note. Perfect for jotting down your to-do list in the car or between meetings.

Many apps tie into social networking, so you can tweet to Twitter throughout the day, locate Facebook friends who are close using GPS, or instantly geo-tag and post new photos to Flickr.

But my very favorite so far is midomi. Have you ever heard a great song and wanted to know the artist? Hold up your iPhone to the radio so midomi can listen. In seconds, you’ll have your answer. Can’t remember a favorite song but you can hum the tune? Sing directly into your phone. Seriously. I’m so fascinated I’ve been singing to my dogs for the past 20 minutes to see if I could stump it. So far it’s gotten every single one right. I’ll be unbeatable next time we play “name that tune” on trivia night!

One last thing…for all you Apple-bashing Microsoft devotees, you can sync with Exchange. Wirelessly. With push technology that rivals the BlackBerry. The iPhone is now officially a player in the business cellular market.

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Never get lost again

Tom Tom Go GPSFor those of you who hate asking directions, technology has come to your rescue with map and navigational services in a variety of flavors.

Many new cars have GPS built right in, but for the rest of us we’ve still got plenty of options. Portable units like those from TomTom and Garmin mount on your dashboard. Carriers like Sprint offer voice-guided directions with built-in GPS; the iPhone has Google maps built right in.

Even if you don’t have these features on your cell phone, the major map websites (Yahoo!, Google, MapQuest) all have mobile versions designed to fit small cell phone screens. As long as you have the Internet enabled for your phone, you can easily pull up these miniature maps.

Read your voicemail

SimulscribeWhen you get a lot of voicemails each day, it can take quite a while to listen to all your messages. Reading is much faster, and now you can, with tools like SimulScribe. This nifty service links to your voicemail, transcribes the message into text, and sends it to you via email or text page. You can still listen to the message if you need to, in case of a transcription problem, or if you want to hear tone of voice. But you’ll only need to listen to a fraction of your calls, which can save hours of time for heavy phone users.

I’ve been using it for nearly two months now, and it’s one of the simplest productivity improvements ever (second only to dual monitors on your PC!). I average a few dozen messages each week, although I’ve been known to get as many as forty calls in a single day.

The quality of the transcription is excellent, although “Nathaniel” comes through as “Daniel,” and last night “Eric” came through as “Derrick.” The return phone numbers come through beautifully, and only about once a week do I actually listen to the message to sort out a less-than-perfect transcription. It fills in “??” if there’s something it can’t catch, and I find I usually can fill in those blanks from the context of the message.

Despite the fact that I didn’t even know about this service a few months ago, it’s now something I can’t live without. Try it–you might like it too!