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I Think a Blackberry is Probably Better for Doctor Wife

2008-08-15 04:48:06

I wrote earlier about the iPhone's poor SMS alert features, and how that made it unsuitable for my wife who is a doctor. I'm now 90% certain that a blackberry is the right choice for her.

The SMS thing is huge. I probably could hack something together, like have a web site that would keep sending SMS alerts every 5 minutes until she acknowledged it. But that could get very expensive/annoying in failure cases. Such as: the phone is in SMS coverage but not data, so you can't stop the server from paging you.

Blackberry SMS alerts are fully customizable, and there is an alert LED as well. I don't know if there is a persistent audible beep, but a long and loud alert plus the blinking red LED is good enough.

The other thing gets into the classic blackberry vs. iPhone debate. I won't get into that too much, but mostly people talk about the touch screen keyboard vs. the physical keyboard; or screen resolution; or 3G quality; or integration with enterprise systems.

But all that is irrelevant to my choice.

First, the keyboard thing is a bullshit argument. Some people have a hard time with the touch screen keyboard, and they are aces with two thumbs. Some people are touch screen wizards. And others, such as me, are completely hopeless with both. The keyboard thing is largely a question of personal taste, and one is not better than the other, objectively. A touch keyboard gives you more screen to play with, a physical keyboard gives you different UI benefits (such as dozens of physical shortcut navigation possibilities.) It's trade-off city.

When I really started thinking about what my wife needs for a smartphone, instead of thinking of an excuse to buy a shiny, pretty iPhone, I got into the real use cases. The primary one is this: it's 3am, or she has 3 minutes between patients, and she gets a page/SMS. She needs to get to the email message that contains the voicemail quickly. If you imagine this use case on an iPhone, and really time it out, it would be something like this:

  1. Pretend, just for argument that the incredibly quiet SMS alert on the iPhone actually gets noticed. In reality, it won't much of the time, and then the entire work flow below gets delayed by 10 minutes to an hour.

  2. Wake iphone (instant)

  3. Slider unlock swipe (if you are sleepy because it's 3am, you might have to do this twice); 1 second

  4. Type unlock code. Oops, touched the emergency call button. OK, finally got it right. 5 seconds.

  5. Open SMS. Find message. (2 seconds)

  6. Touch Mail icon. Mail launches. (1 second)

  7. Wait while Mail polls for new messages. (5 seconds)

  8. Wait some more while Mail polls, because it just noticed the Wifi and reset it's TCP connection. (15 seconds)

  9. Or wait even more because EDGE/3G coverage is weak at the moment. (20 more seconds.)

  10. OK see message that has the voicemail attachment and callback number. Listen to the attachment. Wait while it downloads (5-30 seconds.)

  11. Listen to message, call patient. Call patient is instant because you can just click on the phone number in the either the mail message or the SMS.

I've been living with my iPhone for a year. I love it, it's the best consumer electronic device I've ever owned. But this is the way it really is. I'm a computer programmer, I have zero stress in my job. I don't really care much if reading email takes 30 seconds. If I'm checking email on my phone, it's because I'm bored in the waiting room of the dentist and I have 30 seconds to waste. People aren't throwing up blood while I'm waiting for an email to pop up on my screen. (Oh yes, I went there.)

You might think I'm being picky here, with these 1 and 2 second things. But put yourself in the situation. It's night, you are tired, you are stressed. You probably haven't slept much because you've got a lot of pages. Every stutter in the work flow is like a slap in the face, and your blood pressure ticks up a notch. Speed matters, and if you think 1 second is fast, then Google is going to eat your lunch when they eventually get around to entering your business.

OK, now walk through the Blackberry scenario. If you haven't actually used a Blackberry for a while, you'll have to trust me. This is the way it really is.

  1. Wake Blackberry. (instant)

  2. Type unlock code. Getting the code wrong/hitting the emergency call key is a lot less likely; one of the UI benefits of physical keys. (2 seconds)

  3. Read SMS message (1 second)

  4. Launch email (instant)

  5. Oh look the message is already there, thanks to the insanely fast and reliable push infrastructure that RIM has perfected. Read message (instant)

  6. Download voice mail attachment (5-30 seconds.) I'm going to guess this is about the same on the blackberry as the iPhone, but I don't know that for sure, because I haven't tested it yet. Based on current rumors, it's possible that the iPhone has some weakness in the 3G stack, so it might be that the Blackberry actually is faster.

  7. Call patient. The Blackberry can make a phone call from the selected phone number in the email, just like all smart phones. (instant)

With the Blackberry, there's no stutter in work flow at all, except waiting for the download of what could be a long, rambling voice mail from a sick and occasionally demented patient. That's pretty much unavoidable until networks get faster/better coverage.

A much better solution to all of this would be to forward the voice mail left on the office phone system to iPhone visual voice mail, or to the voice mail box of the Blackberry carrier, with caller ID intact. I don't know of a way to do this with a self-hosted PBX (we're using an Asterisk-based one now.)

Finally, there's an obvious question here. Why doesn't she just call her office voice mail and listen to the messages, once she gets the SMS? This is, in fact, what we do today. It's not really satisfactory because of a problem with the office PBX: for some reason, incoming calls are very quiet. If you listen to them on the phone, it can be hard to understand what a sick/elderly patient is saying, because they talk quietly or mumble. For whatever reason, if you just play the audio file in email, it's much clearer and louder. We're working with our PBX vendor to fix this, but honestly, I'm about to put the thing back in the box and send it back. So the whole adventure of getting a smartphone to listen to voice mail is a pragmatic solution to vendor intransigence.