BlackBerry Review: Smartphone Round Robin | webOS Nation
 
 

BlackBerry Review: Smartphone Round Robin 24

by Dieter Bohn Thu, 14 Jan 2010 12:01 pm EST

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.

Storm2

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:

  1. Die in a fire and get replaced by an open standard
  2. 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.

Wrapping up

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.

24 Comments

Nice comprehensive article with an excellent analogy at the end.
Having both platforms at my disposal regularly, I would point to the useability of the web as a key factor in any comparison. Being able to use the WebOS browser now (as opposed to the days of Blazer) helps keep the nearly unusable BB browser safely in the holster where it can do no more damage to my patience.

I agree completely. I support Blackberrys for an aviation company and can say without a doubt that the WebOS is a better platform but does lack in some of the features and infrastructure that the BB OS's enjoy. If you could simply replace a corporate BES with a cheaper Palm system, IT people would take note at the cost savings that are available. Offer them the openness that you have to your home-brew community and you have something RIM lacks.


When there are problems with BB OS versions or when the Noc goes down, we get very little information as to what went wrong and what RIM will do to rectify the problem. Palm has a door wide open to walk through and offer a true partnership with mobile devices. Every IT department I have been involved with loves their Blackberrys but hates the way RIM operates.

The smartphone that is at the most risk is the BlackBerry. It is a business device that brings few advantages and adds cost. As consumers become more familiar with consumer friendly smartphones such as iPhone/Android/WebOS - they won't be satisfied being forced to use a company provided Blackberry. Messaging is no longer a BlackBerry differentiator especially when you factor in multiple inboxes, social networking. Having to PAY to get your messages - just not worth the cost. We are seeing employees bring in their non-BB devices and getting rid of their BlackBerrys.

I'm not sure that I agree with this. On the consumer side, you may be dead on. But I think a lot of business users, and employers themselves, have BB so ingrained in their business lives that they may see no reason, or at the very least do not recognize the reasons, to switch to another platform. While we consumers, geeks and neophytes alike, embrace the browser experience and the advantages that a more consumer-friendly platform like webOS or Android can bring, the BB has been a staple of the business world for so long that it will take some time for any paradigm shift to occur. And by then, I expect BB to make up a lot of ground and start integrating more of the features that set the other platforms apart.

I saw quite a few of my friends in professional business environment switch from "business-centric" BB phones to "consumer-oriented" iPhones and webOS. I was surprised that they made the switch since they depend so heavily on timely business emails/communication. I think this is due to the greater attractiveness of flashier, and "more fun" apps that platforms such as iPhone and webOS provide. And the fact that these flashier phones are becoming more accepted and supported in the corporate IT world.
I personally would not want a BB or iPhone. I'm just more excited about using webOS and the potentials ahead.

I think there is a shift. My company has started a pilot program to allow non-company issued BB to get company emails. That's what I have been using on my Pre. I am getting all the emails, calendar, and global contact search just like what I did two years ago on BB.

Our pilot program not only allow Pre, iPhone, but pretty much all smartphones. I think part of the reason is that Exchange has matured a lot since the early BB days. It is now pretty reliable and secure on most of the smartphones. That removes a key differentiator of BB. I think Businesses care much less about which phone people use than the affect of their infrastructure. As long as the server side remains the same, what client you use to get the information is not as important.

So, I think BB has the most to lose if they do not quickly match up on the multimedia and usability. Honestly I have not tried the latest BB phones, but with the ability to get my information on my Pre, I am not even going to look at BB.

Great review as always Dieter. I absolutely love the Round Robin. Helps me learn so much more about the other platforms and the hardware they run on, and it also makes me more and more confident that I made the right choice in going with the pre. Can't wait to see what theiphoneblog has to say in there review of webOS.
On a side note, what is that wallpaper you have on the pre? I've been wondering for a while, and I can't help seeing it as a guy pissin down some sort of hole, or gravity vortex. =)

It's my great great something or other from Nebraska grinding a plow. :)

That's pretty kickass. Really cool pic.

Nice. I was wondering the same thing.

Keep in mind that employees are consumers first. So are employ-ers. I'm seeing management preferring iPhones. Also - employers are first and foremost cost conscious - why pay for a service that now comes free? Eventually what you are going to see is companies re-imbursing employees a monthly stipend for using personal phones for business - and moving away from business provided phones and services. This will have a tremendous cost savings (business plans are not cheaper) - and reduce a huge infrastructure burden. Most important it will allow employees (consumers) to use what device they prefer and not be forced into something they don't want. Our company is moving in that direction and the migration from BB's and corporate cell phone plans is such that w/in 12 months there will be no need for corporate plans.

Great article.. i concur.

everyone that I know that has a bb has to buy bottles of rogaine to fix the hair they pull out, plus they pay out the ass for having it.... Well if your on verizon...

Great piece, Dieter. And also some great high quality comments above. Nice to get an enterprise perspective.

please please palm cant you develop a 1500mAh battery........

Personally I think the iPhone isn't a particularly good messaging device thanks to the lack of a keyboard. As a corporate device its a bit lacking too (as is WebOS). Blackberries are popular with large corporate IT depts for very good reasons. They are fairly standard and therefore fairly easy to support. More importantly, BES allows security policies to be pushed to handsets remotely. Many companies have fairly restrictive policies on personal use of company computer equipment.

Having employees provide their own devices will certainly reduce hardware and service costs. OTOH support costs may increase and security will certainly decrease. Many employees will be unhappy if their use of a device they own is restricted and many corporate legal departments do not want corporate email on unrestricted devices. There is also the issue of who owns the phone number.

I have to thank BB for the orignal Storm, if it was not for that piece of c##p of a phone I never would have been tempted to stray away from Verizon to Sprint and the Palm Pre. After 6 agonizing months with the Storm I finally had enough, I walked across the street to check out the phones at Sprint. The Pre had just been released that day and after a couple of minutes using the Pre I was sold and then was blown away when told the monthly fee! How much? 69.99 a month, no way, there has got to be a gotcha somewhere? I get free Navigation with it? I was paying almost twice as much for my Storm when you add in all of Verizon's hidden fees. 7 months later I am still very happy with my Pre and the money saved in monthly fees has returned my ETF I paid to Verizon twice over!

Thanks for the great article. There is only 1 problem I have now........I kind of miss having my Blackberry.

Thanks for the great article. There is only 1 problem I have now........I kind of miss having my Blackberry.

Nice review, Dieter.

WRT centralized control, it's coming to webOS and all others. Palm is, I think, still working on their push messages infrastructure. When that goes live and apps use it, you'd have the same single failure point.

The same with MobileMe, Gmail, Ovi etc. These are necessary because the devices need help polling services for the user. A mobile device needs to conserve bandwidth and battery power and should not be polling all the time, polling belongs at the carrier level. Part of the long battery life of a BlackBerry is possible thanks to RIM's infrastructure.

What timing for this article !

My bane of my life is Palm South Africa have zero passion or excitment for anything, Pre is still not here and my centro died two months ago and I was forced to make a buisness descion, I went Bold 9000....I know I know don't start ! But lets be honest there isn't much else out there for buisness....Windows is a No, Symbian been there, Palm is my home and always will be but I have to comment on what I have enjoyed and not enjoyed and let me say on the out set I have been pleasantly suprised and bummed with BB.

My first impressions of the Bold 9000 was nice build and felt good,yes Dieter a bit wide not quite a truck maybe an aircraft carrier ! But the amazing screen justified the width watchin full length movies in bed is a treat !
The first project was to make the Bold work like a Palm, I had been using the Pre Theme on my Centro for a long time and missed the UI , Step1 buy Pre Theme for BB.....relief already feeling better, the device to date has never crashed or stalled unlike my little Centro, this suprised me and my faith in BB is growing, I always smirk at the " Glorified Pager" gag on the Palm Cast but I have to say its not a bad device.

Wifi works a treat !
I like the keybd SOLID !
Miss my full stop button ! That is so annoying !

A BIG RANT...I hate all the remembering to save crap I have to do all the time , unlike Palm you could start a memo or task take a call check your calender and go back to what you were doing, with BB its good bye and start again, bloody stupid !

NO vcard sender ! holy crap who designed this software !
The messenger in box which makes all sms,FB,bbm,email etc appear in the same place is pretty cool ! Handy, does Pre have it ?

Calender SUCKS ! Comming from Datebook 6 to BB has not been great. Syncing from Palm Desktop to Outlook to BB was a total loss of sleep for one night to find out that only an older version of BB desktop manager allows syncing with Outlook..... I want a PRE Plus

Finding a decent launcher was hard, BB users seem to go crazy for Themes rather than actual UI improvments, Palm/WebOS Developers rock ! I found something called QuickLaunch which has satisfied some kind of urgency of my control atributes needless to say I can work at a reasonable pace. I want a PRE Plus !

I have enjoyed my first interaction with live updates from BB which i assume Pre works the same way, very helpful, as the BB is 3G the response is very quick our Networks in South Africa are very good and we are privleged to have it, only GSM which is demon fast and Vodafone keep it tidy, where is PRE ?

BBM is the one thing which I will miss the most when i get a Pre plus, It is an excellent package which can do sooo much. I agree with Dieter, this should be on a global standard for everyone to use. BBM has been a deal braker for many other devices from what i have heard, a big group of my friends are all looking at BB now just so its cheap to communicate in mobile format.
BBM is EXCELLENT !

As an actual phone, not an amazing experience, call handling is okay,what you can do during a call is bleak however easy enough to use, I doesn't drop calls, unlike the Centro.Cutting and pasting phone numbers from different apps is problamatic and painful.

Woah I wrote a lot !

To wrap up....going from Palm to BB not a good idea if you have a choice get another Palm
If BB is your first look at a Smart device you'll propbably stick with BB forever. I think this is where RIM got it right with the Curve and the cheaper devices pulling in the younger crowd...

I get upset when i think how Palm dropped the ball years back, by miles the better company and far more open minded to mobile possibilities, RIM has got some life left in it but a MAJOR new OS from RIM has got to be on the cards otherwise its a sinker !

In closing..... I want a Pre plus I feel like a Mobile Slut with this BB and want to come home soon !
Hurry up Palm ZA !

Be well everybody
Sneak signing off !

"A BIG RANT...I hate all the remembering to save crap I have to do all the time , unlike Palm you could start a memo or task take a call check your calender and go back to what you were doing, with BB its good bye and start again, bloody stupid !"

This is completely untrue. Unlike the Centro, your Bold supports multi-tasking. You are probably just quitting your apps instead of switching between them.

"Calender SUCKS ! Comming from Datebook 6 to BB has not been great. Syncing from Palm Desktop to Outlook to BB was a total loss of sleep for one night to find out that only an older version of BB desktop manager allows syncing with Outlook..... I want a PRE Plus"

It's true that the Calendar is not as good as man third party calendars on PalmOS. However, the latest version of Desktop Manager does sync with Outlook and transferring PIM data from Palm Desktop to Outlook is trivially easy. 1) Sync Centro with Palm Desktop, 2) switch Hotsync to sync with outlook with the option to overwrite outlook to with phone data set to true. 3) sync Centro with Outlook. You will find getting your PIM data to a Pre or Pixi much harder (and the WebOS calendar sucks).

This coming from a die hard BlackBerry user... GREAT review. I agree with your stance on BBM... I think it should be more open. I have quite a few friends who will never be BB users, but I would love to use BBM with them.

Blackberry in Enterprise will not die, not as long as they have top notch security and the best management tools for IT and best push email system. The way you can lock a BlackBerry down and the way you lock down an Pre or iPhone isnt even possible, and with both of said phones notorious for being easily hacked corporations with sensitive data will not jump off BB, and its the reason huge financial institutions or companies like Boeing rely on Blackberry.

If an enterprise phone to you means only email then yes any smartphone out now can do that, when you go beyond that is where RIM blows the hinges off every other manufacturer.

As for BBM, its designed only for BB and thats how it should stay. BBM was the answer for short messages that you can instantly type out and not have to use emails to flood a users inbox and was also secure messaging. Now BBM is popular because of the BB rising popularity. There is zero need for RIM to open up their client and risk its security just so other users can have a new IM messenger.