What RIM Must Do With Blackberry To Survive & Prosper

Anyone with even a passing interest in the mobile industry is aware that RIM has been struggling. From accusations of being an irresponsible conduit for enabling the London riots to flourish* to it’s CEO losing the plot while being interviewed, to it’s ever diminishing market share and reports of delayed handsets, RIM is in trouble.

A phone store smashed in London during the riots. Taken from the Guardian's article - click to read.

(* a ridiculous idea btw, if it wasn’t BBM it would be something else)

Unlike many though, my view of RIM and moreover Blackberry, is not as negative.

If RIM had the right leadership (and perhaps embraced just x1 CEO rather than x2 ?!), it could take this opportunity in turbulent times to change, evolve and grow.

The problem is that, in the same way Microsoft missed the boat with the web and lost the search market (through Bill Gates uninformed leadership at the time) the same way Nokia has (still in my view) not changed radically enough as a business to yet flourish, RIM is not making the gut-wrenchingly tough and transformational decisions it needs to, to fight in this new game, on a new playing field, which has some new rules.

Blackberry/RIM could still recover. They just need a radical strategy and of course one which works.

In short they need to focus on their strengths and get someone capable to sort out their product roadmap and new O/S.

Blackberry's heritage is in efficient, keyboard driven long battery life devices many of which are often used abroad

Three things have kept me using a Blackberry and it is these top three things which RIM should focus on in the short term:

3) Battery life. Traditionally I am used to still having a working phone long after my friends batteries have died a death. They must focus and innovate on maintaining this lead in the battery-life stakes – as there is a big contingent of people out there who dont want to have to charge their phone twice in one day a la Apple iPhone.

Battery technology will eventually improve, but meanwhile, this is a key differentiator.

2) The keyboard. I hate touch screens for typing. The keyboard on the new Blackberry 9000 Bold is possibly their best ever.

They must find ever more innovative ways to integrate this keyboard into devices which will tempt users from switching to touch screen only.

1)  Bundled foreign data ..and this is the most disruptive. This is something no one is fixing soon because its a Golden Goose for the MNO’s.
I do have unlimited bundled international data on my Blackberry. It’s a tarriff I got with the UK’s O2 3 years ago. Sadly, they no longer seem to do this tarriff (which means I have to ignore my VIP upgrade rights and buy my own new handsets).

Why did O2 do this? Why did they stop?

I don’t have answers to the second question, only the first.

My understanding is that the RIM network (which was originally built for international email and push messaging, long before most mobile users even knew what a “data plan” was) is used with data routing (after hitting the cell tower) via Blackberry’s own international network of servers and APN’s (those more technical than me, can probably confirm this as right or wrong).

Assuming this analysis is not entirely wrong, RIM could force a deal with carriers to provide bundled international data on ALL their handsets. This would steal a march against all the other phone providers who don’t benefit from RIMs existing data infrastructure.

Bonus number 4) Run Android Apps. I understood the new version of the O/S should be able to run Android Apps. If it can, this should without question be included as standard, especially giving Blackberrys existing rather woeful collection of applications.

Other than finding a leadership team who can implement these things, at least to recover RIM in the next 12 months, to me these seem awfully simple things to be focusing on.

So many people travel these days, the data plan is the scourge of the traveller. What clearer message to market than “Buy a Blackberry: Get international bundled data. No more data charges”. Add in a fair-use policy and watch your sales rise.
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Blackberry! I Feel The Need For Speed

One of the reasons I believe Blackberry has been lagging in the mobile application download numbers is very simple: speed.

While for some people, the less snazzy interface, a lack of touch across most devices, a poorer selection of apps are the reasons not to use a Blackberry, for many this is not an issue.

In fact:

  • a tangible tactile keyboard
  • and bundled international data roaming

..are the two factors which keep me firmly a loyal and loving Blackberry user (RIM take note: do NOT break either of these things for me, although I appreciate the second is in co-operation with the carriers).

The Blackberry App Store hasn’t actually been at all bad, even since version one. Yes it has had fewer apps to choose from, but in reality most of us spend 80-90% of our time using the same handful of apps. The biggest problem with app stores in general remains discoverability and nobody has done a good job on solving that problem with their app stores.

Maverick’s supersonic – be there in thirty seconds

Speed of response and interaction is an often under-rated factor when building internet or mobile software products. Speedy interaction can mean that an otherwise average user flow, does not necessarily damage the user experience. An extra click or tap here and there doesn’t matter as much if the response is immediate and you still feel progression through whatever task you’re doing. With a fast UI user engagement can be increased. Of all people, Google Search knows this well and it remains a cornerstone of Google design.

I’ve been using the current flagship RIM device, the Blackberry Torch, for 6 months. I have a love/ hate relationship with it. The main problem (apart from the keyboard being far less awesome than the previous Blackberry Bold) is that it is underpowered. Either it has a processor which is too slow or it has some very inefficient software – my bet is the former.

Application downloads are all about instant gratification: see it, want it, install it. Rinse and repeat. This addictive process is broken on the BB Torch, because although the software supports concurrent downloads the hardware can’t cope. The dreaded clock timer appears frequently, browsing for other apps becomes sluggish (and impossible if downloading 2 or more apps in parallel) and when you come to install an app the entire phone is unsuable, with a permanent ticking timing to entertain you instead. Worse, it can sometimes take 5 full mins to install the app then another 5 minutes while the phone reboots.

Contrast this with iPhone or Android where I can upgrade or install multiple apps and happily carry on browsing.

Android can download and install multiple apps without it slowing the device significantly

RIM’s new operating systems may even run Android apps (so goes the rumours). This may confuse consumers as much as it makes some happy – that is another discussion – but one things is for sure: we live in an impatient, want-it-all-now world. As consumers, our expectations are incredibly high. A flagship modern smartphone needs to be passing the instant gratification finish line at full speed, if it wants to win in this market.

Maverick, call the ball

Blackberry is currently failing to feed our glutinous consumption driven side. That is a pity, as for a long time it was the only smartphone which would truly multi-task and it was fast. I loved my Blackberry Bold all the more for that fact; flipping between apps which would maintain their state was a joy.  I could beat my friends on their iPhones and Android devices to a Google Maps place at a cinch. I laughed at the early iPhone users as they swapped back and forth re-opening their email or messaging apps, but I’m laughing no more.

Let’s hope whatever the new range of Blackberrys look like, they put powerful enough processors inside, without compromising famous Blackberry battery life, which still remains best in class.

..apologies for the gratuitous Top Gun references 😉

Blackberry 9800 Torch Review – The First Ten Days

The 8900 is the first product that I’ve ever said “I just want a Blackberry bold with a touchscreen” and they’ve attempt to actually deliver what I spent 2 years awaiting, almost to the letter.

The Blackberry mobile User Interface is the most underated phone UI in the industry. Certainly not the pretiest (but not as backward feeling as Windows Phone 6.5 and before) its of purely a practical design. The RIM Blackberry O/S is all about productivity. For this I love it.

The subtleties of its genius are lost on anyone who has not owned a BB. Aside from awesome battery life and having had full multi-tasking since before the iPhone or Android were born, the biggest subtlety which is unique to Blackberrys is how if you enter into doing one task, but then switch to doing something else, it remembers the path by which, thru the UI, I started doing that task and if you return your task is still there frozen in time.

E.g. I go to the address book and begin composing an email. I need to check for something on the map. I use the red hangup key (which ALWAYS exits you in one click – genius again – but unlike the old iPhone home key has always frozen the state) and go into Google Maps. I then get a call; then I have to send an email in reply to someone else; so from mail inbox reply to someone, then start an SMS and realise I didn’t send the other first email. I go back to Address Book (via the fast key on the said of the handset) and its still there where I left it. This sounds convoluted but in practise its awesome.

Combine this with the fact its been dropped over 100 times and still works without a broken screen? This is a mobile warriers device.

So, bar the crap browser and limited apps my Blackberry Bold is probably the best modern phone and comms device on the market today.

NOW here comes the Torch.

So here’s the verdict. The Good:

  • Nice screen
  • Usual solid construction
  • Good touch control with all the gestures
  • Reasonably good battery
  • Retains much of the good UI
  • Everything else which is good about a Blackberry

And The Bad:

Blackberry has broken some key things which in my view are “untouchable” things they should not change and they need to fix, fast. Some are trivial some are more serious.

  • Paths not always adhered to – the beutifully simple task/path process I describe above no longer always works.
  • Red hangup key – this no longer exits to home in all situations with one click. It should.
  • Only one shortcut key – why? Its one button! Now I have no hardware shortcut for the camera.
  • Changing “SMS” to “Text” in the menu – just annoying
  • Moving “Send Txt” etc to a 2nd level menu in SOME situations – just plane stupid. Add another click? Why??
  • Animated scroll on context menu slows the ability to select items using the keyboard. I want fast- not pretty.
  • Broken calender main view- all day events don’t always show hiding at the top (annoying) and the flip animation again is slow to flip between the days. Other than to see one is busy the other views are pretty unhelpful
  • Contact entry/view- this is a disaster. Having to select “mobile” everytime from a dropdown? Madness. Its an attempt at making a pratical view look nice and for touch while breaking the essense of speed
  • SMS – why can’t I select a number and copy / paste or use the menu on it? The msg txt you can select the phone number you can’t. Annoying.
  • Paste icon – some views it appears, others it doesn’t, so this is inconsistent
  • Address book name entry/search – you have to manually delete the last search entry each time, the back key even when on focus, doesn’t do it.
  • CPU- it just seems a little slower

KEYBOARD – the new design is simply not as good as either of the last two bolds, large or smaller form factor. If its not broke don’t fix it. I’m used to it now but its simple not as accurate and the bottom of the phone and curved edges get in the way of pressing the keys around the edge of the keyboard.

KEYLOCK KEY – this is simply flawed. You put it on and it 75% of the time its off when it comes back out of your pocket. Dangerous.

So, I’m sure there’s more but that’s off the top of my head. Should you buy one? Simple- how much do you use the web? If its a lot then buy it. If not; stick to the non-touch.

This is their first slider, hopefully they’ll fix these issues; it is a challenge to combine key based UI and touch- but the rule should be an optimised keyboard based input control should always take priority because that is the only thing which is going to keep Blackberry and RIM as a major player in the mobile game. The keyboard. Ruin or compromise that; and Blackberry is going to become a much lesser 2nd or 3rd tier player.

..This review was written on my Blackberry Torch 9800 🙂

The iphone is good … but not that good.

As Paul Jozefak rightly points out on his blog, it is truly unreal that after all the bitching about lack of cut and paste, they have still left it out. Maybe it will be a Christmas present from them instead 😉

That aside, I still rate the iphone as a fantastic piece of engineering. As a net device, or for apps, its truly fantastic. But as a phone, it truly sucks. Its still better than a Windows Mobile phone, but that isnt good enough – nor should that be a measurement of success!

The iphone came down from Heaven and thus they were all in a clammer.
(know this artist? I’d like to leave credit and link – please leave a comment if you know)

If a phone is going to be “a phone” then it has to do one thing well first: Be a phone.  That means decent battery life, and easy one hand operation for making calls. If I cant retrieve someone from my address book, in the dark with one hand (this is a test, not a regular use case for me 😉 and get the right number atleast 50% of the time, its a FAIL.

My life is too rushed, too busy, too many calls to be faffing around with both hands, head dug into my phone screen.

Lastly, there are other more subtle problems– Why do I have to go back to the SETTINGS screen to do basic config changes which I should able to access from with the current mode? Why cant I add a photo into an email, FROM the email I’m writing, rather than START from the photos gallery?…..I could go on.

The iPhone is already hailed as the coming of the new messiah. In many ways it is, but I’ll wager now that given how closed Apple has a tradition of being it will never dominate the future of the smartphone market, atleast not in terms of number of handsets. For that you should look to Android, Googles new open alliance. If it is truly open and is embraced by operators -mostly likely out of desperation in retaliation to the iPhone- then it will most likely trounce the iPhone.

Currently, I’ll have to carry my beloved Crackberry 8800, the best phone Ive owned in 5 years, and find space in my clothing for the beautiful but flawed iphone, too.

  • Want to know about phones? use GSM Arena – fantastic free and well updated resource on phones old and new. Not an ad, I’ve just used it for years and its a great site!

More Mobile Network Operator Mobile Data Woes

I posted this on MomoLondon today in an effort to understand how any MNO can roll out such a policy and think it is sane / sensible / will work / will grow their data business …

Can anyone explain to me why if I access the internet on my Blackberry one way (e.g. via O2 actives homepage) I get charged, but if I access the mobile internet another way (via “Blackberry bookmarks”) I don’t ?!  Even if accessing the same webpage – e.g. Google.
Another stunning example of wholly opaque pricing and usability from the MNO’s.
Momo Crackberry users, be warned. I have received £600 bill for data for one month, because I apparently accessed data via the wrong APN.
Apparently one pay’s for data via “mobile.o2.co.uk” but not  via “blackberry.net”.  Frankly, this is a joke.  I dont remember being quoted “100 mb of inclusive data provided you use the correct APN”. 
To be fair to O2 they have reimbursed me for the confusion, provided going forward I make sure I use the right APN; and I commend them for making the right decision on this.
There may be a good technical or other reason, why it is like this; but that is not the point.  Don’t give inclusive (albeit capped) data packages, but then apply a string of confusing criteria to the deal. Data is data. Sorry, but I dont care about the complexities of an MNO’s network or international roaming deals.  I am paying for an inclusive, international 100mb of data for email and browsing. That is what I expect to receive, without strings attached.