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Editorial: How RIM can improve BlackBerry right now

Editorial: How RIM can improve BlackBerry right now

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I'll confess: I'm not what you would call a traditional BlackBerry user. In fact, other than a brief, frustrating stint on a Curve 8900 (I was drawn in by the lovely hardware), I've never used a BlackBerry as my primary smartphone. But -- like a few of my friends and fellow journalists -- there's something about new BlackBerrys that I always find inexplicably alluring, even though I'm well aware that using them is liable to drive me mad. Maybe it's the hardware, maybe it's the platform's historical reputation as a productivity powerhouse, maybe it's old-fashioned naiveté... I don't really know.

Regardless, the urge struck me once again with the introduction of the Bold 9900 series, so I've been using a T-Mobile-branded unit on and off for about a week and a half now. As a text-based communicator -- SMS, email, and social networking -- I was pleasantly surprised at how well it works. And just as importantly, BlackBerry 7 has totally rehabbed the web browsing experience to the point where it's neck-and-neck with the best that iOS, Windows Phone, and Android have to offer. As a primary device, I was shocked to find that the 9900 was almost workable.

It's not all sunshine and roses, though. The third-party app catalog lags iOS and Android by a mile, and the user interface still relies heavily on archaic lists of plain-text menus that look better suited for a Wyse terminal circa 1988 than a modern smartphone designed to keep up with our ADHD-addled minds. These are things you can't fix quickly, and by all appearances, RIM's first QNX-based phones aren't coming until next year. Even once that happens, it'll likely be a long road to getting RIM's entire installed user base and product portfolio from BlackBerry OS over to QNX.

I don't know how committed RIM is to making BlackBerry 7 (and any future iterations of the non-QNX platform) work for consumers -- it's possible that Waterloo is satisfied enough with sales to its legacy enterprise base to leave well enough alone and move on. And considering the pressure RIM's getting right now from investors, it seems likely they won't be devoting serious engineering resources to putting more lipstick on a pig when untold work still needs to be done to get QNX ready for primetime.

That said, I've identified a small handful of simple (well, seemingly simple) things that RIM could do right this instant to make the Bold 9900 and its stablemates more satisfying devices to buy, own, and use. I doubt any of these matter to RIM's traditional business-heavy base, but if the company is looking to capture new markets (like me), these are the changes that I think of as the lowest-hanging fruit -- minimum effort on RIM's part for maximum payoff. Read on.

Sort out Gmail and IMAP. Seriously. Email is your core competency, so act like it. Come on, RIM. This has been going on for years, and it makes less sense by the day, particularly for a platform that prides itself on best-in-class email productivity. To be fair, modern BlackBerrys at least acknowledge the existence of Gmail and offer native support for archival, but syncing -- read / unread status, deletion, and so on -- continues to be a problem. Don't get me wrong, it does sync, but it's far from real time; I found myself regularly waiting 20 minutes or more for the Bold to match reality. There's a promising-sounding menu item in the Messages app called "Reconcile Now," but in practice, it reminded me of the "Close Door" button in elevators -- it's a placebo, as far as I can tell.  And even when it does finally sync up, the notifications that appear on the home screen are abandoned; they need to be cleared separately, regardless of sync activity. Basically, RIM still doesn't seem fully prepared to acknowledge that people might get their email from somewhere other than Exchange.

It feels archaic, a relic of a time when wireless data and mobile processing power were at far greater of a premium than they are today.

Don't require BIS / BES for connectivity. This one actually ties in pretty closely with my Gmail complaint: I always get the vague sense while using a BlackBerry that it's being hamstrung in one way or another by the fact that all communication is being arbitrarily piped through RIM's platform on the back end. It feels archaic, a relic of a time when wireless data and mobile processing power were at far greater of a premium than they are today.

Sure, I understand and acknowledge co-CEO Lazardis' arguments that the BlackBerry platform sips data more efficiently than anyone else -- and with less battery power -- but in doing so, he's also inferring that BlackBerrys aren't full-fledged, connected computers. A BlackBerry without its BIS / BES connection is a paperweight, unable to stand on its own. And on a related note, for frequent phone switchers ("power users," to put it charitably) such as myself, the BIS requirement makes switching to and from BlackBerry handsets a pain -- you need to call into customer service and have BIS provisioned or turned off each and every time.

Iron out app management. App World 3 just came out of beta, and it's a pretty big improvement over 2 -- in fact, it's downright user-friendly -- but it's still just a facade over some pretty archaic behavior underneath. Under no circumstances should installing, removing, or updating an app require that your phone be rebooted, much less consumer-focused staples like Twitter and Foursquare. Heck, I get cranky enough when a full-fledged desktop application asks me to reboot -- but my phone?

Get rid of the centered "working" icons and messages. I know this sounds like a really minor detail, but I find that there's a significant psychological effect (for me, anyway) when I perceive that my phone is choking. Nothing conveys that more clearly than a center-screen animation of a spinning clock that can't be cleared. I seem to get it a lot in App World, doing things that I wouldn't anticipate would cause the phone to crank its gears. Why is it there? What does it mean? Should I not do anything? Is it okay to try to switch to another app or the home screen? Lazaridis has long touted that multitasking is old hat for the BlackBerry platform, and a modal "working" symbol is the antithesis of a properly-architected multitasking UI.

Commanding a brand premium has never been a viable long-term strategy without strong product to back it up.

Don't put the Bold on a pedestal. This one isn't so much an engineering change as it is a marketing change (and, for some, a philosophical change). The Bold 9900, as I see it, competes favorably with phones in the $150-200 range on contract -- and I feel like I've spent time with enough phones over the years to speak with some authority there. RIM and carriers presumably justify commanding $250 or more because they know businesspeople will eat them up in droves, but with every generation, iOS and Android are creeping on RIM's enterprise stronghold. This game isn't going to last forever, and commanding a brand premium has never been a viable long-term strategy without strong product to back it up.

These changes should've found their way into BlackBerry 7, especially considering what a mild refresh BlackBerry 7 turned out to be (needless to say, the leaks suggesting that it started life as a 6.x update make total sense to me). While we wait on QNX, I don't understand why RIM wouldn't be investing a little more effort into making the platform palatable for folks outside the legacy base, because I can't be the only one out there lusting after the Bold 9900.

In fact, I'd had this editorial on the shelf for a few days and just pulled my Bold back out to wrap it up. I love this hardware. Adore it, even -- it's without question one of the best-feeling, best-looking phones I've ever used. But BlackBerry 7 isn't cutting it, and QNX for phones remains a mirage. Frankly, I don't know if my short list here is reasonable to accomplish quickly -- if at all -- but if RIM were to pull it off, it'd give me a little more pause before buying my next device.