BlackBerry Review: Smartphone Round Robin 24
RIM's approach to the BlackBerry platform is diametrically opposed to Palm's strategy with webOS: instead of Palm's complete overhaul, RIM has opted for continuous and relentless incremental upgrades year after year. In my third year looking at the BlackBerry platform my basic thought is this: what we have here are better BlackBerrys. Whether or not that's enough to sway a webOS user depends entirely on what you think of the platform.
To see what I think of the platform this year (along with an extended aside about a certain BlackBerry-only feature), read on!
(I'm (very) late with my BlackBerry Review, but that's the way of the Smartphone Round Robin and I have to appeal to some post-CES illness. Apologies all around!)
BlackBerry Bold 9700
If you've been following the Smartphone Round Robin thus far, both Matthew Miller and Rene Ritchie have told you the story on the Bold 9700: It's the Bold, but smaller and with an optical trackpad instead of a trackball. Count me in among the people who think that both changes are for the better. Some might regret that the Bold is no longer as wide as a truck, but I don't mind small keyboards (I tend to prefer them!) and so the Bold 9700 is an improvement in my book.
The Bold 9700 is so full-featured that it's almost boring. It's difficult to imagine what more I'd want added to it given the constraints of the BB OS and the size of the device. It has a relatively large and super-sharp 480x360 landscape screen sitting atop a solid keyboard, it has A-GPS, a 3.5mm headset jack, WiFi, 3G, a 3.2 megapixel camera with flash, expandable storage, a fast processor. Best of all, it has a 1500mAh battery, which in BlackBerry terms means the thing is pretty much guaranteed to last two full days. From what Kevin tells me, battery life on the 9700 is significantly better than on the original Bold. BlackBerry's claim to the best battery life amongst smartphones continues despite the extra features they've packed on.
Moving from the BlackBerry Curve to the original BlackBerry Bold to the BlackBerry Bold 9700, you can tell just by looking at them that we have what I mentioned at the outset: relentless incremental upgrades to both the hardware and the software. A BlackBerry user from three years ago can pick up the latest and greatest and feel quite at home. Some might call this boring, but not me. It's a form factor that works and that means business.
The original Storm hit in the midst of our last Round Robin and so wasn't on our list of devices to check out. That was really too bad, because my favorites reviews to write are the ones where I'm ripping into a terrible, poorly-thought-out device from a company that really should have known better.
In case you need a recap, the Storm is the touchscreen version of the BlackBerry. Rather than do the hard work of reconfiguring their entire User Interface for Touch, RIM went with something they call "SurePress." They (and perhaps CrackBerry Kevin, though I won't speak for him) claim that SurePress is superior to other touchscreens becuse it separates navigation from action or selection.
With Surepress, you can touch and drag on the screen all you like, but you can't actually press a button or a checkbox without physically pressing the screen like a button. The benefit of this is supposed to be fewer mis-taps, but to my mind the real benefit is that RIM didn't have to redo their entire OS. Perhaps I'm a cynic.
The above Surepress half-measure, software-wise, was combined with utterly terrible hardware with the original Storm. The general feel of the phone was hefty and solid, which I like, but the screen 'floated' above a single button. It make the device feel cheap, it made the screen feel squishy in the corners when you pressed in, it made your thumbs ache after just a few sentences worth of typing.
I am sure that the original Storm has its defenders, just as I'm sure that people with Stockholm syndrome really do have a genuine sympathy for their captors.
After all that, you can guess that I was rubbing my hands together in anticipation of the Storm2. This would be fun. But ...I like the Storm2.
The OS has been further refined with the Storm2 - you can still tell you're using an OS designed for a trackball, but in general it's better. The browser is still a crime against mobility, but it too is better - though this upgrade has also been applied to the original Storm. Best of all: the screen is radically better and therefore the entire experience of the phone is better.
You no doubt have heard, but if you haven't, RIM replaced the one big button with four smaller ones at the corners, each actuated with electricity so they are immobile when the screen is off. When the screen is on and you're typing away you get a click that's still on the firm side, but at least it's firm and reliable. I can type really fast on the Storm2 with a surprising degree of accuracy. Believe it or not, but in the world of touchscreen keyboards, only the iPhone beats the Storm2 for accuracy. However, being second in accuracy doesn't necessarily mean second in overall experience. Plan on having sore thumbs if you type a ton, because it still takes more effort to press the Storm2's screen/button than any other mobile keyboard - physical or virtual. Sincerely, a lot of people dislike how much work it is to type one and many others don't find it as intuitive as I did. YMMV, but overall I don't hate the Storm2 keyboard, it's pretty good.
The BlackBerry Platform
Two years ago I spent some time meditating on the difference between the BlackBerry and Windows Mobile platforms. In essence, I said BlackBerry was "Catholic" in that it was largely a centralized system dictated from the top while Windows Mobile was "Protestant" in that it was decentralized and it was up to each individual person to figure out their own way to smartphone salvation. Last year I suggested that the BlackBerry OS was starting to look like PalmOS: end-of-line, past its prime, ready for a complete overhaul or replacement.
I still think that BlackBerry is a "Catholic" ecosystem, but I've broadened my definition (and the metaphor) recently. Yes, when you buy into the BlackBerry you will adjust yourself to the "BlackBerry Way" of centralized email, settings mysteriously handed down by your corporation or carrier, and so on. Howeer 'Catholic' also means "Universal" and it's worth noting that RIM has done a better job of getting devices out to every carrier at every price point (In North America, anyway) than literally any other smartphone maker out there.
This is also clearly a post-Vatican II BlackBerry ecosystem for most consumers: you're free to theme your BlackBerry, to do some hacking here and there, and to download and install apps that are actually getting quite good and doing so quite quickly. You can get your Gmail and Google Voice on, too, with support that bests everything else out there save Android (really).
Ok, we've had enough of that metaphor, so let's talk about the other point: Does BlackBerry have a future, or is it in the same place PalmOS was four years ago: Top of its game, but headed for a technological crash. Up until this year, I assumed the answer was yes. Now, I'm fairly sure that BlackBerry has a good few years left in it. I chalk that up to two things: that RIM has surprised me by announcing OpenGL support for 3D games and that I've underestimated the engineering prowess at the company. If you haven't, go take a look at this sample chapter from the BlackBerry Planet Book on CEO Mike Lazaridis. His relentless focus on radio and battery life shows engineering knowledge at the top that is probably unparalleled in the mobile industry. While I like to joke that the BlackBerry is 'just a pager' at heart and therefore limited, the truth is that RIM has been remarkably adept at finding ways to expand the platform while maintaining backwards compatibility.
So while I still think that RIM will eventually need to restart the BlackBerry platform from the ground-up with a more modern core architecture and interface, I don't think that it necessarily needs to happen yesterday, tomorrow, or even in the next year or two.
BlackBerry Messenger, a not-so-brief aside I swear is relevant
If you're unfamiliar with BlackBerry Messenger (henceforth BBM), think of it as a supercharged IM/Chat system for BlackBerrys. You can directly message users, form groups, check read/sent status, and more. It's all instantaneous, completely free, and (generally) reliable. More on that "generally" parenthetical in a moment, but right now I want to emphasize that I think it's a very compelling service and it's completely understandable that BlackBerry users are addicted to it. BlackBerry owners, please remember that as you tuck in to the tirade to come.
I'd like one of two things to happen to BBM:
- Die in a fire and get replaced by an open standard
- Become available on any platform
My problem with BBM is quite simply that it's tied to a single platform: BlackBerry. You can only use it to communicate with other BlackBerrys - no other platform gets to play. You could easily (and understandably) call this sour grapes: that I'm simply jealous of the feature and since I can't have it on other platforms, I don't want anybody to have it. Perhaps there's a bit of that - but philosophically I don't like the idea of any method of communication being tied to a single platform and in control of a single company. As an example of where I'm coming from: one of the reasons I've begun using Google Voice is because of the convenience of text messaging from my desktop - even the standard way of text messaging feels a little to restrictive to me.
It gets worse. BBM is controlled by a single company that sets the standard for communication and is completely responsible for its workings. This is actually a problem with the overall BlackBerry communication architecture in general, in my opinion. I believe it's too dependent on the BlackBerry Enterprise/Internet Servers - if they go down, your BlackBerry can become little more than a glorified phone with a keyboard and calendar. Yes, any communication service can (and will) go dark from time to time, but with BlackBerry there's too much tie-in between their different services. Heck, BBM managed to bring down data for BlackBerry users recently since it had a fall-back to PIN messaging which used shared resources on the BIS, which overloaded RIM's servers and crashed their network.
On previous versions of BBM, it was even worse than that. Until relatively recently, not only was BBM tied to a single platform controlled by a single company, each instance of BBM was tied to a particular BlackBerry. That's right: if you upgraded to a new BlackBerry, you lose that particular BBM identity and needed to give you friends and family your new ID. Recent versions of BBM have attenuated this problem by allowing you to export and import contacts to the cloud or to SD, and you could then restore your BBM profile and have your contacts updated.
So that's why I felt strongly enough to say that I wouldn't mind watching BBM die in a fire. What to do with it? On the one hand, I have to admit that there is no open equivalent that I'm aware of out there that is as good, fast, or cheap (as in beer) as BBM, so I'm tempted to wish that RIM keep it proprietary while allowing developers to create clients for other platforms - from webOS to iPhone to the desktop. However given RIM's recent track record of keeping their servers up an running, I seriously doubt they could handle the crush of iPhone users descending en masse on their service. The other option is for RIM to transition BBM to a medium that isn't dependent on their servers but rather a more open communication standard. Given the various players that would need to make nice (and agree on who pays who how much) and RIM's no-doubt acute awareness that BBM is one of the stickiest services on a mobile device ever, I highly doubt this will ever happen.
To be clear, I'm not being conspiratorial here and saying I don't trust a single company to handle a communication medium - I use and love twitter, I have basically handed more personal information over to Google than I could possibly give to any human being, and I get that IM and Skype depend on corporate servers somewhere out there. The difference between BBM and those, however, is that they can be used on multiple devices and most have APIs and published communication standards so developers can create third party clients.
No doubt I'm going to get flamed into a flaky, crispy cinder by BlackBerry fans for all this so I'll just repeat again: I think BBM is a very cool way to communicate in practice and am (obviously) jealous that I don't have access to it day to day. I just think that communication should be open and based on shared, socially-evolved standards. Plus, few of my friends are BlackBerry users and I have no designs to convert them.
Balancing Openness and Control
(Or: Why the above rant is relevant to the overall conversation about BlackBerry and about the Smartphone Round Robin in general.)
Every smartphone out there needs to strike a critical balance between control and openness. The benefits of control are myriad: stability, reliability, predictability, security. That last one is important for RIM, because up until relatively recently their bread and butter was corporate sales. Having a more 'open' platform also brings benefits: more creative development, hack-ability, transparency.
'Open' and 'Control' are actually just placeholders here for a swath of metrics on various axes. Android is more 'open' than webOS because it's open-source, but you could make the argument that webOS is more open because it's more accessible to the average user. The iPhone is locked down tight, but their many many developer APIs means that it can feel quite open to developers who want to make compelling apps. BlackBerry is controlled in many corporate environments, but denizens of CrackBerry.com can attest to how the platform is easily hacked (in the good sense) to do any number of crazy and cool things. Windows Mobile: same deal, it's open in that you can really configure the heck out of it.
If you haven't guessed, I like platforms that are more 'open' and I'm not especially dogmatic about what kind of openness a platform offers. Taken as a whole, the BlackBerry platform has become more open in recent years, but overall it just feels a little too restrictive for me. I will happily grant that some of that is just that I'm unfamiliar with how to really hack into and configure a BlackBerry, but there it is.
Though the BlackBerry isn't for me, I am not a typical smartphone owner and I don't have typical smartphone owner concerns. The BlackBerry platform overall performs faster, more reliably, and has longer battery life than a comparable webOS device. Sorry webOS owners, but in my experience those judgements are pretty much unassailable.
However I find webOS to be more elegant, to have longer-term potential as a platform, and most of all to be more 'open' in my fuzzy way of thinking about openness. RIM makes the trains run on time, but Palm lets me into the conductor's booth.