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Over the last two years I’ve owned four different BlackBerry Bold 9000 handsets. I’ve been accused of having an obsession and even found myself on the receiving end of an intervention, during which I had my BlackBerry confiscated for being exceedingly anti-social.
I’ve tweeted from the shower, almost lost a limb filming lions with the built-in video camera, skydived with my Bold in my back pocket and successfully navigated out of the Johannesburg CBD after discovering that Alberton is not, in fact, a suburb of Johannesburg. Yes, my BlackBerry got us to Alberton just in time to see Underoath play their brand of face-melting Christian metalcore.
If you own a BlackBerry you know what I’m talking about. You probably have stories of your own, and no keyboardless iPhone, uninspiring Nokia or fragmented Android-brandishing fanboy will ever understand the relationship you share with your beloved BlackBerry. You love BBM. You love the unlimited data plan. You love typing on the best portrait QWERTY keyboards available on smartphones today. BlackBerries are conversations starters too. I can’t even recall how many times my phone prompted someone to walk up to me and started waxing lyrical about BlackBerry.
Because of BlackBerry, Research In Motion enjoys the type of consumer mind-share and loyalty envied by many of the world’s largest smartphone manufacturers, but 18 months since the introduction of the 8520, RIM is still very much the underdog in the mainstream consumer market.
BlackBerry didn’t really make a play for the mass market until the introduction of the Curve 8520. Up to that point, BlackBerries were synonymous with business men, trading in their towering skyscrapers reflected in the windows of their black BMWs parked on Wall Street.
If you’re like me, you see the potential. You see the amazing consumer applications of BlackBerry outside the ivory towers of the business districts. An always on/always connected network where the socialising never ends. You see RIMs acquisition of QNX as a sign of things to come, a new dawn as the ultimate business/mainstream consumer crossover device.
It hasn’t happened yet.
So what are the issues preventing BlackBerry from dominating the consumer market?
The BlackBerry Internet Service and BlackBerry Enterprise Server are the heart and soul of BlackBerry. It makes BlackBerry the most secure, configurable and cost-effective smartphone platform in the world.
The level of security and customisation of BES allow corporations to secure their trade secrets, push software updates, and sync calendars and contacts throughout their businesses.
Through BIS, consumers all over the world, especially in third world countries where the cost of bandwidth is high, enjoy the benefits of communication via unlimited data plans.
As much as BIS and BES are stalwart foundations of BlackBerry, they are also its Achilles heel. Because they serve as a nexus for data traffic, when these services become congested or go down, users experience outages that render email, BBM, web browsing and other forms of data communication unusable.
These outages happen more often than anyone would like, and without alternative methods of communication, many users run the the risk of missing a critical communication.
Governments, such as those of the UAE and India, have recently threatened to boycott and ban BlackBerry, criticising the security of the system after recent terrorist attacks were orchestrated by using secure BlackBerry end-to-end encryption. The Obama administration has publicly criticised the UAE for its plans to ban BlackBerry in the Middle East.
It must have been an unnerving experience for customers, watching governments threaten boycotts of the BlackBerry service when so many are tied to two-year contracts with their cellular carriers.
Finally, the “Push” technology inherent in BIS and BES allows for exceptional battery performance on BlackBerries and is key to the timely delivery of email, but it also allows cellular carriers such as the UAE-based Etisalat for example, to push unsolicited software updates or notices to BlackBerry handsets without a user’s consent, which can cause handsets to behave erratically.
The BlackBerry User Interface has always been a bit utilitarian. With RIM’s recent consumer market push, BlackBerry has made attempts to break the shackles of its suit-and-tie origins, but it hasn’t been easy with competition from the likes of consumer market oriented, visually appealing operating systems, such as iOS and Android.
BlackBerry 6 looks better, and the distant promise of a QNX-based UI, as recently demoed on the BlackBerry PlayBook, is encouraging, but it’s critical for RIM to focus on making its operating system as intuitive and appealing to consumers as soon as possible, since Apple passed Research in Motion for the first time ever by shipping 1.7 million more iPhones that BlackBerries in the third quarter of this year.
RIM has saturated the business market, and although a difficult balancing act, it’s critical to evolve the visual appeal of its operating system, without alienating enterprise customers or sacrificing performance.
For game developers, it makes the most sense to create games for the best smartphone gaming platforms. BlackBerry just isn’t that platform at the moment. Between meetings you might find a business man playing a round of Ka-Glom, Sudoku, or Brick Breaker, but mainstream consumers hunger for visually stunning games such as Angry Birds or the immersive 3D experience of Need For Speed.
The support for IMAP on BlackBerry is embarrassing to be frank. For years, RIM has danced around the issue, and on the world’s best device for email, it really is unforgivable not to have more support available to mainstream consumers using BIS.
Lastly, the improved WebKit browser in OS6 is a welcome but long overdue addition to BlackBerry. As consumers consume more information through applications, BlackBerry App World is still lagging behind the other platforms in terms of volume, and a rich web browsing experience therefore remains important.
For the majority of BlackBerry users the aforementioned improvements in OS6 remain folklore, as older hardware simply cannot support the newer features or interface improvements. I’m still secretly wishing and hoping that RIM releaseS the WebKit browser as a standalone download for older BlackBerry handsets.
It’s difficult to fault BlackBerry hardware. BlackBerries are strong, well built devices with a propensity to keep on running through the toughest wear and tear.
On the older devices however, the often maligned yet highly regarded trackball has been the weakest link. Fortunately, modern BlackBerries have done away with the trackball in favour of much hardier, trackpad, but for the majority of users, the trackball remains a sore subject.
Currently, however, it seems as though the elephant in the room is the CPU. It’s difficult to quantify how RIM could justify releasing their flagship device, the Torch 9800 with a 624 MHZ CPU, in a world where 1 GHz CPUs are the norm. The lower powered CPU contributes to interface lag and a sub-par web browsing experience, and is arguably the reason why the device is not the runaway success it should be.
The amount of application memory on older devices is also a problem. On my Bold 9000, the measly 128MB means that I’m limited to installing very few applications and having to reboot multiple times a day as multi-tasking, memory leaks and general use deplete the memory reserves during the course of the day. Thankfully newer devices such as the Torch have 512MB of application memory, but for the majority of BlackBerry users, hitting Alt-Shift-Delete has become a part of their routine.
I get the sense that BlackBerry is growing, at least in mind-share among consumers. At my place of work, a year ago I was the sole user of my BlackBerry for personal use. Today another six of my colleagues have purchased BlackBerries and use them for work and play. BlackBerries are being advertised via radio, television, internet, billboards and even on my daily cup of Seattle coffee. From the BlackBerry sponsored U2 tour, to the countless celebrity endorsements, BlackBerry seems to be everywhere.
If you listen to technology pundits, you get the sense that they want the BlackBerry machine to succeed in the consumer market and that they have not counted RIM out of the race in any way. The very same minds responsible for creating such success in the corporate world can pull together for the consumer world.