Archive for Crackberries

A Storm Of Criticism

The much-anticipated Blackberry Storm hits Canadian stores next week, and with a month of so of official use under the belt south of the border it’s probably time to take a look at how the actual production devices are faring.

I was going to do a round up of the various reviews, but McCracken has saved me the time – you can get a pretty broad snapshot in one handy location right here. Note to Blackberry fans: Steel yourself before clicking on the link. While none of the reviews are quite as scathing as Pogue’s write-up over at the Times, the general consensus is not very flattering.

The general consensus is also extremely unfair. What pretty much all of these reviewers have done – either overtly or in a roundabout kind of way – is compare the Storm to the iPhone. What they should be doing is comparing it to other Blackberries. It’s as if General Motors took a huge leap of faith, adopted some new technologies that were long overdue, made what was far and away the best General Motors car ever … and then the reviewers to a man (or woman) did nothing but side-by-side comparisons to the new BMW M3. It wouldn’t be pretty. And it wouldn’t be fair.

Same thing here. This is by far the best Blackberry ever. Period. And as an attempt to shake off a lot of layers of moribund ideas and technology, it is a very very good first step. Hopefully the first of many. And for the people who didn’t like the touchscreen keypad – get a grip. It is beyond excellent.

That said, there are a few things that I take umbrage with – two of them quibbles, and two of them showstoppers:

Quibble: Using the SureType keyboard in portrait mode. Things like SureType have a purpose – they are a necessary compromise when you have to cram a keyboard into a very small physical space. Fine. But the space here isn’t small, and there is absolutely no reason not to have a full QWERTY keypad on the touchscreen in both orientations. This is pretty obviously a case of “someone at RIM is so in love with SureType that they feel they have to cram it into every possible product, regardless of the actual utility”. Luckily, the easy workaround is to never ever type in portrait mode. Flip the thing on its side and … problem solved. I would have liked to see a way to turn this off, though.

Quibble: A complete lack of situational and dynamic keys on the touchscreen keypad. The whole idea of using a touchscreen keypad is twofold: One, you get more real estate on the screen. And two, you have the ability to get around the limitations of hardwired keys. For reasons unknown, the Storm pretty much completely eschews number two. There are no URL-based keys when you are in the web browser, no easy way to get accented characters, no easy way to use non-standard braces and quotes. I just don’t get it – it’s like they got this shiny new hardware and nobody realized that they could update the firmware to match.

Showstopper: The UI. Anyone who has used a Blackberry for any period of time (and who doesn’t actually work for RIM) will tell you that it is the best mobile email device in the entire world … and that using any other application or function on the thing pretty much sucks. There is just no coherence, pattern, or basic rhyme and reason to the UI. It’s like the people who do the various pieces sit in sealed boxes and never ever talk to each other – and some of them never even use their own applictions. There is no excuse at all for the “rest of the Blackberry” not being as good as the email app. None. Someone at RIM who is in a position high enough to do something about it needs to (1) look up the acronym “HIG”, and (2) spend the appropriate amount of time getting one in place.

Showstopper: No WiFi. Really. You might think I am joking, but I am not. There are no WiFi capabilities at all, which is both completely unacceptable and totally flabbergasting. I am going to take the high road and assume that RIM was bullied into this by their “partners” in the wireless industry (and I use the term “partners” very lightly, since the wireless providers in North America are conscienceless pirates who fuck the hardware makers over every bit as badly as they fuck over their paying subscribers). The wireless industry hates and fears WiFi, and would do just about anything to make sure it never saw the light of day in any mainstream device. That said, I don’t understand why RIM would cave in on this. They are not some bit player here … they still are the number one name in the game. If Apple had the leverage to tell both AT&T and Rogers where to get off on this one, then RIM should have been able to do it too. What gives?

So yeah. I wouldn’t buy one yet – but I like it enough that I would put my money on the counter if they get their heads around a usable UI and correct the WiFi issue. It’s that good. Ready for prime time? No, not yet. But bad press aside, you owe it to yourself to at least take a look.

Super Awesome Ringtone Tool

If you have an iPhone you may have noticed that making your own ringtones from audio files you already own is a complete and total pain. While ringtones you purchase and download from the iTunes store are super easy, your own tunes and sounds are a complete and utter exercise in frustration. There are two reasons for this:

One: There is a different set of copyrights involved between a song you download for listening to versus a song you are downloading as a ringtone, and this leads to a digital divide between the two, and

Two: Ringtone sales a a massive cash cow for both Apple and the record labels that own the rights to the songs, and they are not going to give that up by making it easy for you to brew your own.

This is not just an iPhone/ Apple phenomenon, either. Most cellular carriers and handset manufacturers are are also in on this … if they do not outright deny you any way to get homebrew ringtones on a device, they manage to put up enough roadblocks that most people give up and hand over their coin for the “official” method.

Well, enough.

Welcome to “I Want Free Ringtones“, a website that acts as a filter, processor, and host for converting your own audio files into delicious and free (as in free beer) ringtones. It is dead simple, too: You upload your file, use the site’s tools to crop it for time (if you didn’t or couldn’t do that at your end beforehand) and adjust the volume, preview the thing with the on-line audio player, and then either save the result back to your hard drive or leave it hosted on the site so you can surf to it later. It’s fast, super easy, and works exactly as advertised. You can save the files as QCP (lo-fi tones, for the Motorola crowd), M4A or MP3 (hi-fi tones for the rest of the world), or M4R (the special Apple hi-fi format that the iPhone is looking for).

The hosting function, by the way, is perfect for Blackberry users – one of the slickest parts of the BB package is that you can use the web browser to surf to an MP3 file you create with this tool and use a single click to convert the target file into a ringtone that you install over the air. Better, you can share your creations with your friends just by passing around the URL.

The whole thing is a total hoot no matter what phone you carry. But – for Blackberry users who want to stretch their legs and for iPhone users tired of trying to navigate the gordian knot of M4R files – this is the greatest thing since sliced pizza.

Enjoy.

Blackberry Thunder Revisited

A few months ago I mentioned the fact that – despite the loud and rather public dismissal of touchscreens by Mike Lazaridis – the folks up at RIM were indeed working on an iPhone inspired and touchscreen-based device that they privately referred to as the “Apple Killer” or “AK” if you were one of the cool kids in the RIM development labs.

That device is now pretty much ready to hit the street. Units are in the hands of the folks at Verizon for pre-release testing and just to confuse the issue they are going to sell it as the “Storm” in the USA (or at least with Verizon), the “Thunder” in Canada (and probably the rest of the world), and – because they still love their numbers up in Waterloo – the marketing drones at RIM will still call it the 9530.

Aside – regardless you were either wanting 3G speed, or not caring because most of the 3G networks in North America suck ass, the “30” at the end of the model number means that the Storm / Thunder / whatever is packing CDMA instead of 3G, so that is one less thing to worry yourself about. Whether that holds true in Canada will have to wait until we see the number that gets attached to the Thunder when it hits the Rogers inventory lists on this side of the border.

However – all of that is window dressing. What is important here is that I got to spend some quality time with the Thunder recently, sequestered in the back corner of a high-security top-secret facility known as a Second Cup. There is a lot to like about where RIM is going with this model, but also a lot of really silly and downright puzzling things that may serve to drag down and make ordinary what could be a seriously awesome device … one that has the potential to be a killer step forward for the rather moribund products currently being sold under the Blackberry name.

First and foremost, and something long overdue, is a touchscreen and electronic keyboard. This is an absolute must for offering a satisfying and usable mobile web experience, something that has passed both email and phone as the most important thing people want from their smartphone / palmtop / whatever they are calling mobiles this week. It also gives you the ability to serve markets that use other alphabets and languages without having to product double handfuls of different hardware, you just select a different language and off you go. And I have to say that this is the most incredible touchscreen I have ever typed on – it has a tactile “give” when you press it and it “clicks” under your fingers in much the same way the Wii remote does when you use the onscreen keyboard and it is totally awesome. I don’t know how they did it, but they did. Absolutely amazing, except for one thing that puts the brakes on the whole thing. When the device is in the standard upright portrait mode, the keyboard comes up as a SureType pad:

Blackberry Thunder - SureType keypad

WTF?

There is more than enough room to put a full QWERTY keyboard on the screen, why in the hell would they go to the horror of SureType? I can only guess that they were worried that their core users would not be able to give up “edging” their keys when they type and make the leap of faith that you need to type on an iPhone-style keyboard, where you plant your finger right on the key and cover it up entirely. These keys are huge and were obviously designed to let users hit the edges of the things and still see the letter underneath. It’s too bad, because this would have been a champ to type on all day long with a proper layout of keys.

Oh -if you are wondering about the seriously bad pictures, I apologise profusely for the poorly framed and kind of blurry results. I took them surreptitiously while hovering my iPhone over the unit to “compare sizes” and I was lucky to get these at all. So shush.

The problem with the keyboard layout disappears when you turn the unit on its side, however, and it copies the iPhone’s functionality by swapping the screen into landscape mode and giving you a wider keyboard:

Blackberry Thunder - real QWERTY pad

This is more like it! It would be just about perfect except for – once again – the size of the damn keys! They have kept the gigantic keys here, and they eat so much real estate that you are left with a teeny ribbon of screen space to actually see what you are typing. It’s a huge disappointment and glaring flaw in the UI that seems to reinforce the fact that there is a lot of inertia up at RIM and the old guard still has the ability to put the brakes on real changes.

This is reinforced by the fact that the address book and calendar are the same weak efforts that we have seen before, and the whole UI at the “ribbon” (yeah, I still call it that) is the same thing as on current models. The only real difference is that scrolling around the ribbon is damn near impossible, and switching back and forth from the touch screen to the hard keys at the bottom and back is really, really, really awkward.

But – and this is a great but – since everything is in firmware, they can work the bugs out as they go. And regardless of the limitations at this point, this a giant leap forward for both RIM and the culture up in Waterloo. Changes are definitely afoot at RIM, and for the better. I just hope it isn’t too late.

As far as other “two thumbs up” items go, it does use WebKit for the browser engine which immediately puts it head and shoulders above anything coming out on the Android platform, and the long-standing memory crunch that RIM products have been crippled by has been solved by the simple – and completely sensible – method of putting a microSD slot in the thing. Expandable and manageable memory has look been a staple in regular computers, why not in handhelds? Great call there. The Verizon model will ship with an 8GB card in the slot, and they are supposedly offering a super-cheap upgrade at the point of sale. You can expect that Rogers will cheap out and give you 2GB or an empty slot for the same price. But a quick trip to Costco solves that right quick.

The “Storm” should hit the shelves in the U.S. in very early November. The original plan was mid-October, but sales and setup training for the Verizon employees is running right up until the first day of November. And look for Rogers to start pumping this out in early January, with a very outside chance at getting it on the shelves before Christmas.

Stay tuned.

Giant Blackberry Outage Of Doom

On the off chance you haven’t heard the news, seen the papers, etc. etc. etc … there is a pretty total failure of the Blackberry infrastructure in North America. This is the downside of the monolithic nature of RIM’s setup, and the outage is the price that you pay for “push” technology – the gratification of instant email to your handheld instead of having your device check for mail every few minutes.

The outage is affecting email and web browsing from Blackberry handhelds, but some people have reported that they can still browse the web if they use their service provider’s browser on the ‘berry instead of the one that comes from RIM. Your mileage may vary.

Oh – and when the system does come back up, expect another disaster when the RIM infrastructure collapses under the load of all the stalled messages. Yikes.

iPhone Musings – Part Two

I was at a Second Cup (for those of you south of the border, that is a chain of coffee shops here in Canada, sort of like Starbucks except with actual coffee instead of the piss-weak brown water at Staryucks) the other day and there was a mope trying to send an email from his Blackberry and he poked at the keys for a few minutes and then flipped the ‘berry onto the table in disgust and turned to his friend and uttered a concise and timeless phrase:

“This Blackberry sucks.”

The funny thing here is that there was nothing wrong with his Blackberry at all. It was working just fine, keys responding, screen updating, memory … er, memorying. What was wrong is that his wireless provider’s half-backed digital network had crapped out on him. He had the dreaded “data connection refused” result, and that led to his phone also not being able to make calls and eventually he had to pull the battery and SIM care out of the Blackberry to do a full hard-core reset. The whole time he muttered about how bad his Blackberry was and as he walked out the door he glanced at the trash receptacle and told his friend that he “should toss the fucking thing in the garbage.”

He blamed the device, not the carrier. Which brings us to the whole point of this post: Apple really made a mistake when they went with Rogers as their “exclusive” iPhone wireless partner in Canada. The Rogers wireless network sucks gigantic amounts of hairy balls, with an absolute endless parade of dropped calls, data rejections, and network failures on their “Edge” digital network.

The Edge. That’s a laugh. The Crap would be more apropos.

But the service provider is usually teflon in these situations. Geeks and gear-heads know where to put the blame when the network lets them down, but the average suit-and-tie kind of mope is clueless about this, so they think that their device is at fault. Which means, regardless of how good it actually is, there will be a brigade of young executives down at ye olde coffee shop saying “This iPhone thing sucks.”

It’s a shame, really.

RIM Shenanigans

If you carry a BlackBerry and you were thinking about upgrading your OS to any version is numbered 4.1.0.3xx … then you probably want to think again. No idea what they are playing at up in Waterloo, but upgrading your BB to the newest OS version will result in a more-or-less crippled Bluetooth interface. We found this out the hard way, and when we went googling searching for info we found that this isn’t something that we fucked up – it seems to be a problem for all current models on all carriers.

Full and annoying details are right here.

There are rampant rumours about what is going down – the best bet would be that some sort of pressure from wireless networks is the reason, although the “RIM is doing it so you buy a Pearl instead” is really gaining traction in some quarters. For what it’s worth, this is not an accident – the speeds recorded are far below the default for the Bluetooth chips in these models, and the only way to get that molasses-like performance is to purposely choke the things back.

Two Toys For Your Pocket

A quick look at a pair of baubles for your web ‘n’ java enabled mobile device:

Google Maps Mobile: This is the latest iteration of the Google Map / Google Local framework for mobile phones. Like the previous iteration (Google Local Mobile) this offers searchable maps and locations from the big database, but now includes some additional niceties like real-time traffic reports. You would be well advised to remember that every time you move the map you are loading data across your wireless connection, and for the average mope that means you are paying your service provider for pretty much every one of those bytes. It isn’t that hard to run up a $1000 cellular bill in just a few days. Hopefully you won’t even have to ask if it’s a beta.

MidpSSH: Midp is an exceptionally slick little SSH client for your handheld. It handles SSH1, SSH2, and telnet sessions with aplomb, saves your session profiles automatically, and (best of all) has macro definition for commonly-typed commands. Everything you need to manage your server anyplace that you can get a cell signal. It’s rock solid and it’s free – just about the best thing since sliced pizza.

iLane

There has been much blathering in the mainstream media over the past couple of days regarding “iLane”, the shiny new service that lets you hear your email read to you in a “natural human voice” while you are driving. All you need is a bluetooth-enabled handheld or portable device and a subscription to the iLane service, and suddenly you are navigating your email with “easy to use” voice commands and staying in touch with the office or loved ones in a completely hands-free and eyes-on-the-road environment.

What the talking heads and typists in the mainstream media have completely failed to mention, however, is that the service runs under a “scanning and summarizing” system, which means your emails are first read by the iLane service, and then translated into an audio summary. The mopes at iLane aren’t overly forthcoming as to whether the “pre-read” is done by a human or a machine, but the choice between the two options doesn’t seem like much of a choice at all.

Thumbs down for this one.

Chargebox

Now this is interesting and a very cool idea. The Chargebox is popping up all over the U.K. – it is a small stand-alone kiosk with 6 small “lockers” that are just big enough to hold a cell phone or PDA or digital music player. It costs a pound (about 2 bucks Canadian as of today) to stash your device in the locker for 40 minutes.

Why would you do this instead of keeping the thing in your pocket for absolutely free? Easy – each locker has power connections inside that will charge up pretty much any phone or PDA on the market. When you are traveling or on the go, a couple of bucks to get your phone or tunes back up and running is a deal. And while they don’t mention it, since one of the connectors is obviously a mini-USB jack (for charging newer Blackberries) you could also juice up a fair number of digital cameras and GPS handhelds.

I fully expect that we will be seeing these on this side of the pond sooner rather than later. And while some of the potential locations are obvious (airports and the like), there are almost unlimited possibilities for deploying this thing. Golf courses (charge your PDA while you play) and fast food joints are two that immediately pop to mind. I am sure you can think of a million more.

Best idea I have seen in a long time.

Blackberry Soup

I wasn’t going to post a link to this. Really. I was going to let it slide, figuring these mopes had embarrassed themselves enough. Two, three, four … eventually, seven people sent me this link yesterday. And still, I resisted. Took the high road, as it were.

That all changed an hour ago when the exact same thing showed up on my Blackberry as unsolicited mail. Fucking spam. I do not recall anywhere in my EULA there being a clause that allowed the vendor to pollute my inbox with a Statement of Martyrdom and Divine Redemption. Just to be sure I went back and checked the agreement again. No dice.

So, here it is, in all it’s hand-wringing glory. I especially like the bits about the problems with the patent system – as if offering legal protection for an inventor’s work was somehow wrong, but using political influence to have technically valid patents overturned was a rousing victory for Truth, Justice, and the Blackberry way. I’m sure that Jim “The Groper” Balsillie is out getting the stars and stripes tattooed on his ass even as we speak.

NOTE: Be warned that you should not read the contents of the link above if you are either (a) drinking milk, or (b) have recently eaten. In the former case, your milk may all shoot out of your nose. In the latter, well, you might very well puke.