Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Phone Review: BlackBerry Storm

I'm eschewing my standard phone review format and making a more editorial format review. The Storm showed up on a list of the top 10 embarrassments of 2008. I really don't think that's fair. In the current market I really doubt any one is going to get very excited over a phone unless it can absolutely STOMP the iPhone...or IS an iPhone. But to call a sluggishly adopted phone an embarrassment just isn't fair.

The phone did almost everything right. They took a very mature platform, put a highly advanced touchscreen and very innovative UI on top of it. Created a very nice media player and packaged it into one of the best looking BlackBerries ever. There's nothing about the phone to NOT like. The detractors have constantly complained about the lack of WiFi, and while NICE to have, the phone doesn't NEED WiFi because the Verizon network is so good. I had the phone for over a week and never sat around thinking "Boy I wish I had some WiFi so I could use some data".

I feel the Storm is better than the iPhone in several ways:
1. Native multi-tasking. This makes on-the-go IMing work out quite a bit better since the connection is actually persistent and real-time and not some kind of answering machine service. 2. The device wide notification API allows any application to let you know you have messages RIGHT on the main screen. You don't need to depend on sound cues to know what you have.
3. The keyboard is worlds beyond what the iPhone has. The spelling correction and predictive text features are golden, I never really got into an argument with it. Also the extra physical buttons makes for an easier "No I really meant to type it that way" experience since the key is always in the same place.
4. Just about every application changes orientation as opposed to the like 2 blessed iPhone applications that do that. RIM understands that people will want to TYPE type on the phone and let you do it with both thumbs if you want.
5. MMS. Had to say it.
6. Copy & Paste. Again.
7. Haptic feedback. The phone cleverly simulates pressing a real button when navigating its interface by...making you press a real button. Yes it's the whole screen, but it really doesn't make much of a difference pressing one button for every key or each key is a button like the inside keyboard on the Voyager.
8. Programmable "convenience" keys. No matter what application you're in, these keys will do whatever you tell them. So you have 1 touch access to your camera, or your email, or anything else you can think of...without having to go back to the home screen.
9. The camera, more mega pixels, better focus, and a real flash. Physically better in every way than the iPhone's...too bad the software for it was no good.
10. It's the little things, when you're using the media player tapping one of the Up/Down keys on the side below the headphone jack will increase or decrease the volume. But if you HOLD down that button it will skip to the next song or go back to a previous one. On the iPhone you need to unlock the phone to change volume, and work your way all the way to the "Now Playing" screen to move around in the playlist. Laame.

It's a very BlackBerry thing to have several functions built into a single control depending on how long you hold it or how many times you hit it.

They missed the boat on just a few things:
1. They put out the phone a little too early (Wow where have I heard that before?), before the BlackBerry store for the phone was launched. Most of the success of the iPhone was due to the app store you had access to the first day you opened the box. Without the app store, it's difficult to find programs for the phone and even then the quality is questionable.
2. Without a "Corporate" data plan from Verizon, which costs $15 extra on top of the $30 unlimited PDA data plan, the phone will not sync anything over the air. It will RECEIVE email, and somehow mine managed a one time sync of my calendar. But after that the only way I could get appointments would be to send myself invitations. The phone does understand invitations. But reading or deleting a message (Even when selecting "Delete from mailbox & handheld") will never sync you need to delete everything twice. The iPhone does this synchronization without the extra data plan. It just may not necessarily be pushing those changes, but I can live with that. This is the big point for me. Had they managed to pull this one off, I may have not cared about the lack of apps or ...
3. Pandora Radio. I love Pandora. I love it so much I paid money for access to a free service. I think what they do is innovative, unique, and high quality. They deserve to be paid. There is a Pandora radio application for any phones on the AT&T or Sprint networks, and also for any Windows Mobile phone. BlackBerries, regardless of network and ESPECIALLY Verizon, are SOL. This really irked me. While not RIM's fault specifically, this is very disappointing, especially given all the other mobile platforms the app is available on. Considering the howling the BlackBerry community has been doing to both Pandora and RIM, it may behoove both of them to sit down and work something out since it's long overdue.
4. Not really a major detractor, I really do wish that more applications too advantage of the device's multi-touch capabilities. The API includes these features. I'm betting they wanted to get the phone out to market and didn't have the time to implement it, probably the same situation as the app store. It may be coming in a future update.

Verizon didn't let me try the Omnia, which is unfortunate since it may have saved them in my eyes. But this is it folks. I tried. I tried so very hard to avoid it. I bought and tested 3 phones, and did extensive in store trials and market research on 4 others. The best of the best, available in the US. And nothing quite got it right. The Storm was the closest. And some phones that SHOULD have been amazing got crippled by manufacturers not realizing they can't bully and short-change the market.

It makes me sad.

I now own an iPhone.
I admit this likely makes me a sellout...but no one can deny the pains I took to make sure it was the only way to get the features I wanted, and I don't think I wanted much. I'd like to go to Verizon the next phone cycle in 2 years. Let's hope the market gets their shit together and learns to compete.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The perfect phone

I had originally written an article describing several mistakes phone manufacturers are making in their quest to compete with the iPhone. I realized that was too negative. Instead of describing all the stupid stuff other companies are doing I should describe what I've seen that would make a phone capable of truly competing with the iPhone. On its own terms, and not just a "this is as good as I can get, being stuck with this carrier."

The phone should be about the same size as any recent BlackBerry, and weigh about as much (4-6 oz). This is important. If the screen is too small no one will be able to read the increased font and picture sizes required of a touch screen phone.
Fully or mostly touch screen phones are catching on, while full touch screen phones may not last... the idea is here to stay.
Also the weight is very important. Any lighter and the device will feel too cheap, any heavier and no one will want to tote it around as a phone.

Using a capacitive touch screen like the BlackBerry Storm and the Apple iPhone opens a few interface possibilities which the iPhone has leveraged (in a small way. If you hold the phone to a heat source while in a call, the screen turns off to save on battery.) This also allows the phone to exist in your pocket while locked and not accidentaly call people. The Storm and the iPhone are also capable of leveraging multi-touch. The perfect will leverage its advanced touch screen to save battery and provide cooler applications.

This is purely my opinion, but I love the "click" screen included on the BlackBerry Storm. It allows to have not only "tap", "flick" and "hold" events in your interface but "click", opening options like "click and hold". I'm just theorizing here, but as interfaces advance to and past the touch interface of Minority Report, differentiating between a "tap" and a "click" will become increasingly important. Having the feedback of actually clicking a real button actually helps me type incredibly fast on this keyboard. RIM done good. The perfect phone will include some form of haptic feedback, preferably in a clicking screen.

Include a real headphone jack. I'm serious. I threw the HTC Dream (otherwise known as the Google Phone or G-1) out of the race for forcing you to use a mini-USB dongle to use a standard pair of headphones. This behavior may have been acceptable when the major companies (Samsung, Nokia, LG, and Motorola) ruled the market with a laconic fist, but now that Apple has rocked the boat the consumers rule. If a jack is not offered, people will quickly jump for a new phone that offers this as soon as possble. You can't annoy the market into buying shitty Bluetooth headsets to listen to music. Not anymore. The perfect phone will let me use my own headphones without being annoying, it will let me listen to my music on my terms.

Wait long enought to offer your phone. Apple kept the lid on the iPhone for years before its launch, waiting until they could offer a comprehensive and integrated solution for each feature they wanted to include. They let the store cover anything they couldn't think of by themselves, which I imagine is what the fabled BlackBerry Storm application center will be like. Samsung/Sprint jumped the gun on the Instinct and released an unstable and immature phone into the market, and they're paying the price. Their development SDK couldn't even mimic KEY features of the actual phone (like the keyboard), crippling 3rd party development (which they tried to encourage with the Instinct Developer Contest). Make sure your device is ready to play with the big boys before you get into the game. The perfect phone will mature enough that the existing features of the existing applications will work.

Be productive. The line between entertainment phones (RAZR, KRZR, Vu, Dare, Instinct, Rant) and business phones (BlackBerry ANYTHING, Windows Mobile ANYTHING) has begun to blur since the iPhone includes all these features. The line between the "hip" and the business-folk is also blurring, as younger people become industry leaders. Pulling the RIM (Research In Motion) and charging an extra $15 a month to access your exchange/exchange clone calendar is not going to fly for much longer. This information is accessible via IMAP, just check that when you check your email and be done with it. The iPhone already does this, and Windows Mobile does it even better. BlackBerry/RIM and feature phones are the only groups not on board with this idea. Just drink the koolaid, already...people are scheduling their lives online. The group that offers this without making a big stink is the group that is going to win. If everyone puts it out there, that's one less stupid thing to judge a carrier on. The perfect phone will let me WORK and PLAY.

The perfect phone will let the user community enhance this phone. I'm talking to you, Verizon. iPhone, Blackberry, Nokia, etc provide a relatively complete SDK which allows software developers to create applications for the phone. Even if they're not blessed by the carrier and not included in a central "Application Store", you can easily install these things on several phones as long as you accept it as a security risk. The perfect phone will let me screw around with it, since it's good enough that anything I do will be enhancing the phone, not hacking around its limitations.

Realize one thing: As a mobile device manufacturer in 2008/2009 you are now a slave to the market. If Apple has proven one thing it is that a hand-held device is capable of more than anyone thought possible. Except the BlackBerry people, they've had half these features for YEARS...they're just too busy to say anything. But the other half, if your phone doesn't do it people are going to leave you for the phone that does. Apple is not exempt from this. They have a very poor history of paying attention to the market, people just happen to like what they do a lot of the time. iPhone users have been asking for haptic feedback, MMS, camera flash, video camera, flash enabled web-browsing, etc, since the phone hit the market. If they don't deliver soon, some of their customers may jump ship to a different carrier when their contracts expire...which should be soon.

Two more phone reviews will be coming soon. I will be exchaning my BlackBerry Storm for a Samsung Omnia within the next few days and will review both of those soon. Then the winner takes all championship match: The iPhone v. EVERYONE ELSE.