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.

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