I haven’t written about the failures of a platform in about a year but I’m drawn to do it again. Why? Well when we learned that we could run BlackBerry software on Windows phones I was initially excited to try it out. But even after talking to BlackBerry users there was a simple consensus – why would I do that? I was even told that was like running a Commodore 64 on an Xbox360. Yet BlackBerry continues to outsell the iPhone and sales are on the rise. I don’t like the iPhone, but I get it. It has an obscene amount of apps, a lot of functionality and a sleek package. But I’m left grasping at straws to figure out what BlackBerry’s have. And yes, it’s a myth that they are great for business users (more on that). So it’s time to breakdown the BlackBerry.
It’s Great for Emailing
It’s not great, it’s fine. There’s nothing inherently terrific about emailing on a BlackBerry. It’s simply not as powerful as other devices. There’s also more work to do simple tasks. Replying to an email is two button presses – one to bring up the menu and another to select reply. On Windows phones, for example, you have soft keys so it’s a single press. And yes, I know you can memorize a series of shortcut keys but you shouldn’t need to do that to use a device.
And there are some massive flaws to emailing on a BlackBerry. For one, if you go to forward an email it’s an all or nothing event. If you want to forward it then the whole email is going to go. So if someone writes “Jim’s being an ass, but here’s the info he needs” then you have to forward it with the email chain or not forward it at all. Of course, you should be able to modify the email just like you can do at your desktop and on Windows phones, but that’s simply not an option here.
Another critical flaw is the inability to download attachments. Yes, you can download some attachments but large attachments simply won’t download. If you’re talking in terms of a business device, this is simply unacceptable. There shouldn’t be a limit, yet there is.
If you want to get the most out of your BlackBerry then you need a BES server (yes there’s redirector, but if your PC crashes so does your email and syncing is limited using redirector). With a BES server you need an exchange server first and then a BES server as well (which is preferably a standalone server but can be virtualized in some cases). The result is that there is a second server to buy plus you need to pay a license for each BlackBerry. On top of that, you’re obviously adding an extra layer that can fail. Of course, there are also ongoing maintenance costs of an additional server and each time a device is added you need to contact your admin to have them properly setup. With Windows you simply have your single Exchange server and phones connect through Activesync. Adding an additional phone simply requires inputting the Exchange settings onto the phone and that’s it. Less cost, less failures.
BlackBerry is Down
Of course there’s one more layer to getting BlackBerry email. Your email has to be transmitted through RIM’s servers and that means that if they go down so do you and there’s simply nothing you can do about it. It’s not an everyday event, but it does happen from time to time and when it happens you’re simply stuck waiting for RIM to fix the problem. Of course, if you had a direct sync with your own local server then you wouldn’t have this added layer. And you wouldn’t be routing your emails through a server in Canada but that’s a separate issue.
The Form Factor
BlackBerry’s only come in three flavors – candy bar, slimmer candy bar (Pearl) and of course the Storm. Your standard BlackBerry, like the Curve and Bold, is a simple candy bar style with a full front facing QWERTY keyboard. Yup, exactly the same as when they started and exactly the same as the old Treos. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that style, but by necessity the screen is small because so much of the device is covered with the keyboard. Because of this, new models aesthetically are little more than a small tweak to the size and shape of the keyboard for the most part. And almost all keyboards have the same size keys which are the same as the Treo 600’s. There’s nothing even close to the size of the Tilt 2’s massive keyboard, so if you use a BlackBerry you need to exercise your fingers to keep them slim for accurate presses.
The screen size is a real limitation for both personal/media use as well as business users since a document can barely be viewed on that size screen. And even though it’s 2010 they still haven’t released a full QWERTY device with a touchscreen. We know the device emulator for Windows let you use the touchscreen. It’s a small thing but navigating with that trackball gets old quickly especially when you think about how much easier it would just be to tap the screen.
And yes, trackballs are finally being retired. They suffered from a serious medical condition – sticky balls. It’s ugly. Newer models have a touch panel that solves the sticky problem but isn’t as good of a user experience. To get past all of this you can try a Storm, but I’m going to be nice and simply not pick on the Storm. It’s too simple of a target. Simply put, it doesn’t get great reviews because it’s not a good user experience and it has a ways to go before it’s a good device.
The Pearl is as good as the Curve/Bold, except you need to get passed the learning curve of using a keypad without enough keys. Again, it’s fine for some but I think everyone will admit it’s not ideal. And those are your options. Good enough for some but nothing worth standing in line for.
Getting back to the base hardware, the Curve/Bold series lack all of the latest hardware you’d expect from a device in 2010. It could use a digital compass, accelerometer, proximity sensor, FM tuner and tv out as a starter. I know, BlackBerry’s selling point isn’t media, so why include things like an accelerometer (that can detect rotation of the device)? Take the Tilt 2 – you turn it face down and the speakerphone is enabled. That’s what you should expect at this point. And the screen resolution on a BlackBerry is HVGA- that’s half VGA, or half the resolution of most modern phones. I’m not even asking for HDMI-out or a pico-projector even though those will be included in phones coming out this year. And for some reason wifi is seemingly a luxury for BlackBerry’s even though it’s been standard for years on other platforms.
The hardware limitations go to the very core of the devices. RIM is just starting to support OpenGL 1. This is while most phones being released support OpenGL ES 2.0. In essence, it’s graphic power that’s missing from BlackBerry’s. And without OpenGL BlackBerry’s are reduced to a simple Java platform. Not to give Java a bad name, but it’s simply not that powerful and most modern phones support Java but it’s secondary to the device. It limits the number of really great apps that you can expect to see but also gives you an idea as to what the device is intended to do – get email. If they wanted a great media device or personal experience they would have advanced beyond this.
You would think that they would make the best of what they have and they simply don’t. Again, compare the Tilt 2’s ability to set up and make a conference call. You can pick multiple contacts from a great looking interface, call them one by one, connect them all, disconnect individual parties and during the call send out emails to all or some of the recipients. From a business perspective it’s a showcase. Contrast this to some BlackBerry’s that don’t let you join an incoming call to an existing call to conference them in.
BlackBerry does one nice thing – their phones tend to have the hardware for all radio frequencies and then they program the phones radio for the specific carrier/market. That keeps costs low and I applaud that effort. However, BlackBerry’s compete for the worst phones in the world. It’s nearly impossible to have a phone call with someone using a BlackBerry without it dropping. And I’ve had lots of real time testing of this with BlackBerry users blaming the network for their lack of a signal while I stand next to them on the same network with full bars. It’s not the network – it’s either the hardware or the software controlling it but most BlackBerry users openly admit that their phones are not good as phones.
The User Interface
So let’s move on to the software side of BlackBerry. The UI itself is nothing to write home about and it’s nothing that other companies are looking to emulate. It’s not new or fresh and there’s nothing beautiful about it. There’s simply nothing awe inspiring about it and calling it boring would be fair.
Compare this to Sense and the ability to have a ridiculous amount of information and eye candy at your fingertip. It’s simply a different level of user experience.
The Web Experience
Ever try to use a BlackBerry for the web? The default is the mobile web. And there’s nothing pleasant about browsing the web with a trackball – there’s a lot more work involved than should be desired. It’s nowhere near the ‘full’ web experience. There’s no Flash but there’s also no desktop experience. In fact, in an attempt to get a Bold to load ESPN I changed the default behavior to ‘desktop’ mode. That led to two battery pulls to end the misery that was a device trying to display the web. That’s why BlackBerry has a small share of the mobile web market despite having so many devices sold and that’s why it’s behind the iPhone, Symbian, iPod Touch, Windows phones, and Android. It edged out Palm but that’s also because it has a lot more sales than Palm.
Show Me The Apps
Ask a BlackBerry user to show off their favorite app. You’ll get a pause in the conversation. Most of their apps are simple applications that can be replicated by web shortcuts. In fact, a friend recently loaded an app that had local news and then said “well there are so few apps that when you get one that’s relevant you take it.” We know there’s a hardware limitation that prevents truly great apps and games but you also have the screen size to contend with. The end result is that the BlackBerry simply doesn’t try to impress with a huge library of apps. Yet somehow, doing as little as it does, I still know BlackBerry users that run apps that restart their phones every morning to clean them out since the process management is so bad that if they don’t do it their devices will lock up during the day.
And unlike the open Android platform and the constantly hacked Windows OS, the BlackBerry is a businesscentric device and lacks the level of customization (and hackery) that some people love. In other words, all BlackBerry’s are the same so don’t think you’re really going to make it yours.
What About BBM?
Yes, BlackBerry users love BlackBerry Messaging. It’s just instant messaging – get over it. Really, there’s nothing more or less to it than that. And of course, it’s tied to a single platform. If you used instant messaging (like MSN Messenger) then you get a cross platform experience so you can IM with all of your friends. Or just text message. Yes, you lose the smiley face holding a beer, but it includes all of your friends. And let’s not forget that since BBM is so antiquated that it’s linked to your PIM so if you get a new phone get ready to reload all of those contacts. It’s not even close to a compelling reason to buy a BlackBerry.
Don’t you love those BlackBerry commercials with the Beatles songs playing? You’d think it had some correlation to the device. The proof is in the numbers – BlackBerry users tend to carry around a second device for their music and media. It’s a little embarrassing but look at this blog post from BlackBerry. Here they are in the end of November, 2009 writing “With the release of BlackBerry Media Sync v3.0 at 12pm EST today, not only can you easily sync your music playlists, but you can now easily get photos to and from your BlackBerry smartphone.” In 1999 I would have applauded them.
The Sum of Its Parts
I’ve never felt that a BlackBerry had advanced beyond a next-gen two-way pager with email. When you take the pieces that make a BlackBerry and you put them together it’s simply uninspiring. I know some of you love the so-called simplicity. That’s code for ‘it doesn’t do a lot’. That may be fine for some of you (especially those of you who upgraded from a Razr to a BlackBerry and loved that it was a ‘smartphone’) but a lot of people who aren’t required by their offices to use a BlackBerry get that feeling that it’s just boring to use. As the other platforms continue to progress in leaps and bounds the BlackBerry still struggles to bring anything new to the table. Yes, they’ll keep a large market share for years since people who are older are perfectly fine with a device that does very little (they don’t even know what an ‘app’ is). But as the markets turn over BlackBerry has the choice of reworking their entire platform or becoming less relevant over time.