John asked me to review the new Blackberry devices, so here it is after the break.
To understand why BlackBerry has been the most disappointing technology company of the last few years, you need to understand what was cool about BlackBerry. In the pre-iPhone era, in the US, BlackBerry was by far the dominant “smartphone”, with two killer software features:
* Push email. BlackBerry pioneered instant delivery of email to your phone, and constant sync between your corporate or personal email accounts. This is commonplace today, but when RIM/BlackBerry built it, they had to create their own email system to push email to BlackBerry devices, and to this day, every message to a BlackBerry travels through RIM’s servers.
* BlackBerry Messenger (BBM). This allowed texting between BlackBerries, no matter what cell provider they used. Each BlackBerry had a unique identifier, called a PIN, and if you knew someone’s PIN, you could send them a text message, except it could be much longer than 160 characters (the length differed depending on the BlackBerry version, but it was around 16K on the devices I used). Corporations and groups of friends used PIN messaging in part because it was more secure than text messaging. The 2011 London riots were organized by groups using PIN messages because they are much harder to monitor than Facebook or Twitter.
The other killer BlackBerry feature was the hardware. BlackBerries were durable, they had a great keyboard, and they had good battery life. My first two “smartphones” were BlackBerries, and I had good experiences with them as email devices.
As smartphones, however, BlackBerries were pretty dumb. The BlackBerry OS was old and crude. The web browser on the device was execrable. Apps were hard to develop, limited and more textual than graphical. The screen was fine for reading emails and PIN messages, but it was small, low-res and not a touchscreen.
RIM, the company that created BlackBerry, knew they they had a problem at least 5 years ago, but unfortunately they were run by “co-CEOs”, when put together, seemed to make half of a half of a brain. The company bumbled and fumbled, releasing some real duds, including the Storm, which had a touchscreen that clicked (yes, it sucked), and a tablet called the Playbook which was over-hyped yet hardly sold. What BlackBerry didn’t produce was a new phone with a modern operating system.
On Wednesday, BlackBerry finally demoed their new phone, the Z10, which is a touchscreen device with a form similar to the iPhone. It runs a new, modern version of BlackBerry OS that checks all the feature boxes–decent web browser, touch screen gestures, integrated messaing portal–and has some innovations. The onscreen keyboard has been getting good reviews, and the camera takes a bunch of pictures at once, so you can dial forward and back until you find your kid’s perfect smile or your cat’s perfect pose.
Unfortunately, as has been the case with BlackBerry for the last 5 years, these few innovations, which are mainly designed to get some market buzz, are coupled with fucked-up execution. First, unbelievably, one of BlackBerry’s killer features, push email, is absent from the Z10, unless you have a corporate (Exchange) account. The whole user interface (UI) sounds like it has some clever features, but it is confusing to navigate and comes off half-baked (Josh Topolsky’s video review has some good examples of UI strangeness.)
BlackBerry’s app store advertises a bunch of apps, but most of them are crap, according to those who have tried them, and a lot of them are ported from Android automatically, a process that just can’t work very well, for a number of technical reasons. There’s no native Instagram, Gmail, Netflix, or Google Maps apps, to name a few examples of apps people might want but won’t find on BlackBerry.
BlackBerry has also released the device old-school BlackBerry users really want, the Q10, which has a keyboard and a form factor similar to the “classic” BlackBerries. I can only imagine how this will disappoint, because BlackBerry wouldn’t even let people touch it at their launch media event.
BlackBerry has something like 80 million users worldwide, and lots of them love their devices. There is no smartphone on the market today that has a keyboard that rivals the old-school BlackBerry, and lots of BlackBerry users want a more modern version of their phone with a keyboard. Yet, as is typical of those fuckups from Waterloo, they are chasing iPhone taillights instead of giving the people what they want. BlackBerry stupidly put a ton of resources into their iPad clone, the Playbook, and that thing took a massive dump. I doubt many people will buy a Z10 when they could pay the same price for an iPhone or Galaxy SIII, which are two similar phones that have mature, working OSes with thriving app stores. But people would buy a Q10 if it had good push email, a suite of the key apps that other smartphones have, good battery life, and a great BlackBerry keyboard. Yet that’s the last priority on BlackBerry’s list.
RIM/BlackBerry finally fired the two douche canoes who were running the place, but this product launch is still part of their legacy. I carried BlackBerry devices for almost half a decade, but I wouldn’t use one of their new offerings even if you paid me. The world has passed them by, and it’s their own damn fault.