Archive for Crackberries

Waterloo: In The Red

Click on the image to be taken to the live map

It’s Friday, and time for a very cool thing … a living map of 300 million or so tweets from mobile phones broken down by platform. This is data at its best – all signal, zero noise. There are all sorts of interesting things to be gleaned here – geographic, demographic, financial, political, social, even legal. But the most intriguing thing of all is found in the area just west of the intersection of King and Columbia in Waterloo, Ontario. This is the world headquarters and beating heart of the much-maligned Blackberry (neé Research in Motion) empire, and you would expect it to be a veritable fortress of Blackberry use – a beacon of purple, a shining message of hope and renewed good fortune in a hostile sea of red and green. After all, if your own employees and most ardent supporters aren’t using your platform, what hope do you have?

It says much for the battered fortunes and ever-bleaker future of the one-time technology giant that north Waterloo is very, very red.

Blackberry Security Takes Another Hit

What is interesting about this article is not the fact that the U.S. and British spy agencies were intercepting data from foreign dignitaries. The ongoing abuse of the Echelon system to spy on non-military communications makes this sort of thing completely unsurprising. What is interesting is that the platform that was easiest to target was the Blackberry.

Remember when the gang in Waterloo used to trumpet the security of their system? Remember when senior IT managers held on to that belief as a way to deny the use of superior platforms on their corporate networks? It all seems so long ago …

Blackberry Throws In The Towel

Yesterday the geek world was all a-twitter (heh) about the announcement from Blackberry – neé Research In Motion – that Blackberry Messenger was coming in app form to both iOS and Android this summer. Thorsten Heims put on a brave front, and tried to spin this as a disruptive and preemptive sort of a move, but it is nearly impossible to look at this as anything but a tacit admission that while the smartphone wars may rage on, they are going to rage without Blackberry as any sort of relevant player.

There are only three possibilities as to what the Blackberry brain trust is thinking here, and how the move will play out. To wit:

  • They are going to offer the BBM app for free on competing platforms. The thinking could only be that people who are abandoning Blackberry will somehow decide to stay if their friends who are already on the other dominant platforms can message them on BBM. This is inane at best – those friends are already either using an OS-agnostic way to chat, or they aren’t bothering at all. This particular horse has already left the barn and nobody cares. Worse, BBM is one of the last exclusive functions of the Blackberry platform, and one that carriers are still paying a premium to have access to. Why give away a revenue stream, no matter how thin, to solve a problem that has long passed from “challenge” to “moot point”?
  • They plan to offer the app for free and charge a subscription fee – basically emulating the way that BBM works on real Blackberry devices now (albeit with the subscription fee buried in the monthly carrier fees). This is an automatic fail. Users already have instant messaging, Google talk, Jabber, FaceTime … a veritable host of messaging services including real-time video chat, for free. The other side of the coin, charging for the app and offering the connectivity for free, meets the same fate. People will gladly pay for something innovative and cool and useful. People will not pay if they already have that something for free.
  • They are going to pony up the app and the basic connectivity for free, then offer an in-app purchase or subscription for “premium” features – BBM video or screen sharing. This is the model that startups like Dropbox and Evernote have built wildly successful businesses on, and it is a proven winner. It would be a killer idea here … provided you have a time machine and could go back to 2008 to roll this out. It could have set the mobile world on it’s ear, and given RIM a running start on transitioning from a badly-dated handset maker to a cutting-edge mobile tools and services provider. They could have created and owned a new business space with literally no competition, a built-in base of loyal business users with big and long-term investments in infrastructure, and the same sort of head start on everyone else that Apple forged for themselves with the first iPhone. But now? Like everything else in Blackberry’s quickly-dwindling hand, it’s simply too late. Everyone else has video chat, so that’s not much of a selling point. And the screen sharing, while of marginal utility on the screen of a pocket computer, is one of the very few things that Blackberry still has to try and differentiate themselves from the handset makers who have eaten up their market share and profits. Is compromising that for a few bucks really worth the play at this point in the game?

No matter how you work this one out, the end game comes out a stalemate at best, and a stalemate does Blackberry no good at all. Either the movers and shakers at Blackberry still have no clue as to why the mobile computing business has trampled them and left them writhing in the dust, or they have finally seen the writing on the wall and are now just throwing things out there in sheer desperation.

My money is on the desperation.

BlackBerry 10 Screen Capture

For the people who asked, you take a screenshot on a BlackBerry 10 device by pressing the “volume up” and “volume down” hardware buttons together. Interestingly, while you would think that this would be easy with one hand, it’s not.

BlackBerry 10 – Same Old, Same Old

Having had almost a month to bash it around, I’m going to write about BlackBerry 10 at length this week. Spoiler alert: It’s not going to be pretty. Everything that has put the product and the company behind the proverbial 8-ball is still firmly in place. No cohesive user experience, no sense of attention to detail, and an obvious (and at this point in the game, distressing) lack of any sort of “Human Interface” oversight structure. Like everything else that has come out of the Waterloo foundry over the last decade, the design philosophy seems to be based on “Wow, keen, look what we can do!” and not “What do users want – and need – to do?”

Yes, I know. This is getting repetitive. So for those of you with short attention spans, I can sum up all of the problems that are mostly likely going to consign the BB10 – and the company – to the scrap heap with one screen shot:

BlackBerry 10 email screenshot

Here we are, reading an email in the much vaunted “BlackBerry Hub”. The Hub is, quite frankly, a really good idea. All of your dynamic communications, in one convenient yet unlike-Android-not-totally-intrusive place. So far so good. But look at the screen. Do you see a screen button to move to the next message in this email account? Nope. Is there perhaps a gesture to flip to the next (or previous) message? Again, nope. You have to pop back to the hub every time, then select the next message. It’s just one tap … but it is an intrusive and annoying tap that you do over and over until you say “What the fuck were they thinking here?”

Is it a big thing? No, of course not. But it gets in the way, and eventually things that get in the way pile up until they are a full-fledged roadblock. Listen: The best small-screen computers have a design that lets them disappear as you work. The feeling is that it is just you and your data, and the device itself sort of fades into the background. It’s a wonderful experience … and one that you will never have if you grit your teeth and mutter “What the fuck” every time you pick up the device. And sadly, it didn’t have to be this way – like the dozens of other little things done wrong, it’s something that should have been caught, vetted, and smoothed over as the OS as it lurched towards release.

If you want a more detailed tour of the places where the new BlackBerry gets caught in the morass of the “old RIM” mindset, keep reading over the next few days. Otherwise you might want to skip any articles this week that have “BlackBerry” in the title, especially if – like me – you used to be a fan of the company. Because it irks. A lot.

Inside The Waterloo Stasis Field

For years and years one of the more interesting things about Research In Motion was that they appeared to exist in a bubble. Industry would change, business would change, the whole world would change … but the people steering the Good Ship RIM would keep on sailing in the same old direction, firm in the belief that their way was the right way and whatever was happening outside the Waterloo Stasis Field was completely wrong and if they just closed their eyes it would all go away.

Cynical people used to say that it was because Blackberry handsets were so bad at serving web that it was easier to just be in the dark than try to use the browser. People with a more realistic take saw it as a symptom of being the media darling of the Canadian business and tech world. Nortel fell to the same fate – when everyone continually tells the emperor how awesome his clothes are, walking around naked becomes easier than admitting you are freezing your balls off.

So. Time moves on, the globe spins round and round, RIM is now BlackBerry … and nothing at all seems to have changed. The top brass still seem to think they are in some sort of fortress of solitude and can toss out stuff like this. Stuff that years ago would have been accepted as gospel but now gets checked and tossed back as a big stinking pile of humiliating goo. They may have changed the faces at the top, but the corporate mentality is still the same.

Just as vexing is this: “In Canada, yesterday was the best day ever for the first day of a launch of a new BlackBerry smartphone. In fact, it was more than 50% better than any other launch day in our history in Canada.” Meaning … what? What was the previous launch record? 10 units? 1000? 10000? Why no numbers? Are they embarrassing? So-so? More? Less? Everyone else gives numbers … even Samsung, famous for fudging the numbers by reporting “units shipped” instead of “units sold through” at least gives some sort of quantifiable value. Worse, everyone knows that all of the other guys give numbers … meaning that everyone immediately wonders why Blackberry didn’t do the same.

Listen. There are lots and lots of smart, driven, innovative, creative people working at Blackberry. I know this for a fact. Maybe it’s time to let some of them run the show instead of sticking with “proven management history”. Because at this point, that history is not good. Not good at all.

BlackBerry 10 Version 10.0.10 – AVOID

If you are a BB10 developer and you haven’t yet updated your SDK and Alpha devices to the long-promised and vexingly-overdue version 10.0.10 … don’t. There is a rather vicious memory leak somewhere in the routines that broker data between your public stack and the BlackBerry Hub. Unless you desperately need too test your application’s integration with the Hub today (and are ready for a lot of frustration and restarting of your device) you should wait for the next version and stick with the 2318 build of 10.0.9 instead. You lose Hub integration, but gain a whole lot of sanity.

This is why you should never choose to delete old builds from the development environment when you update to the latest SDK. The QDE package may have its limits, but one of the home-run features is the ability to roll back to previous builds with a click. If you have been deleting the old builds as you go, well, consider this lesson learned.

It’s also a “actions speak louder than words” moment for RIM’s BlackBerry’s supposed turn-around in their attitude towards developers. A crucial part of the testing platform that was needed by developers two months ago finally arrives and is broken? After a full fifteen months to get it right? If that is how they treat the “heart of their mobile endeavours” … start planning the funeral now.

Thorsten Heins’ Left Hand

Take a look at Mr. Heins’ left hand. He is showing you exactly why BlackBerry 10 is doomed to failure.

A picture that is truly worth a thousand words.

BlackBerry 10 Password Reveal

One thing that has never made any sense in the handheld computer world is maintaining the desktop tradition of blacking out passwords as they are typed. Rarely – if ever – is there a situation where you can’t easily prevent anyone around you from seeing what is on your screen as you type. The only thing password masking does on a small-screen or compact-screen computer is increase the likelihood of errors and retries. But for some reason, every mobile OS maker desperately clings on to this nonsensical standard.

Until now.

The folks up in Waterloo have nailed this one with the password routines built into Blackberry 10. Examine the screenshot to the far left. This is the default presentation for password entry, with the dreaded bullets masking out the characters in the password. Notice, however, the handy eyeball icon at the far right of the password field. Tap it and voila!

As shown in the image to the near left, the characters are now revealed for easy, accurate, and still secure (since you aren’t going to let a mope hang over your shoulder while you do this) password entry. Done and done.

It’s nice to see that the details of this are properly thought out as well. To wit:

1 – The default is “password masked” … making the standard more secure than necessary is the proper approach.

2 – You can change it with a single tap at the time of entry. No going off to some system settings panel to have to change it.

3 – The default “masked” setting returns at the next password screen, leaving your baseline at “more secure than not” and freeing you from having to remember to change it back.

Whoever was in charge of this bit of the BB10 OS has their head screwed on straight. Elegant, unobtrusive, logical, secure, and intuitive. If I had to make a guess, I would say the QNX crew was responsible for this part from start to finish. The rest of the OS development teams at RIM would do well to study this and learn from it.


BlackBerry 10: Maps & Hub

I spent the day poking around two of the centerpiece apps of the BlackBerry 10 system – Maps and Hub. Before I toss off some first impressions, thought, I have to mention the rather curious timing. BlackBerry 10 has its official launch tomorrow. One day before that launch two of the most important system apps are finally seeded to the SDK to – and i am quoting directly from RIM – “help developers test their end-to-end integration with core BlackBerry 10 applications.”

Um – hello? One day before the launch you are putting crucial integration tools – including Hub, which you are positioning as one of the key features of the entire system – into the hands of developers for the first time? Either the folks at RIM still don’t understand or care about the importance of developers or BB10 development is still way behind schedule and they are scrambling to catch up. Neither option bodes well for the launch.

Anyway. On with the apps. There isn’t much to say about the Maps app in use except that it seems competent (see below) and fares well against the obvious competitor of Apple’s iOS Maps. This is not a surprise, since both apps are using the same dataset from TomTom. This is a good thing, since – unlike the Google mapping package – TomTom isn’t using your location data to sell you to advertisers. Full kudos to RIM for taking the option that shows some level of regard for your users and their basic rights to privacy and respect.

I say “seems” competent because with any mapping application and dataset, you have no way of judging the quality of the results until users have had it in their hands and in actual use for a few months. Maps get better with use – the addition, correction factor, and filtering via end user experience is crucial to the mapping experience. RIM has an advantage here because iOS users have pounding usage data back into the TomTom set for 6 months now, giving users of both platforms an increasingly sophisticated and accurate data set to work from. I assume that at this time next year, any head-to-head comparison of the two mapping apps will be a wash.

The BlackBerry Hub, on the other paw, vexes me. What they have done is taken the dashboard that is layered into the OS in Android and iOS and make it an app. I don’t understand this at all. Having to pop in and out of an app to see information that should just be available at any point in the user experience is frustrating – especially since the lack of a home button on the BB10 hardware means that getting in and out of apps is a total kludge of swipe up, swipe this way, swipe that way, where the hell am I, swipe again, swipe, swipe, argh, what the fuck, goddamn it, why isn’t there just a button? It takes a useful and some would say crucial palette of data and makes it a chore to use.

Will some people like the Hub? Yes, of course. But I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of people just won’t bother with it, either because it is inconvenient to use or because the apps that they use never get around to talking to it. With even big players like LinkedIN not having any chance to develop for it until 24 hours before the official launch there is a danger of a lot of developers passing it over entirely.

Maps? Thumbs up. Hub? Thumbs down. Timing? Thumbs way down.

One step forward …