My life with Blackberry and all that…..

I live in the Kitchener/Waterloo area and Blackberry (formerly RIM) has been a pretty big deal here for a long time. We hear about tech giants like Nortel, Nokia, Palm etc. eventually crashing and burning but it is different to experience it close up. Blackberry employs thousands of people in our area and there is a worry that house prices will fall and the local economy will suffer as more people are laid off. Many of the current 4,500 slated for layoffs will be from this area. 

Communitech is a local organization which is a cheerleader for the tech sector and their spokespeople have said how there are “1000” tech companies in our area and about 1,500 jobs available, so Blackberry does not have the overarching influence it used to exert. However, the staff reductions will still hurt us all, even as the best people contribute to other companies.

I thought I would write this post as one “tech consumer”. RIM has made me both excited and disappointed so my story is probably shared by many others. My own history with Blackberry began many years ago. In 1998 I applied for a technical writer position with RIM but wasn’t interviewed. OK, not so exciting. Then around 2000 I got my first Blackberry phone when I was working for another tech company. It was kind of magic that you could be walking along a trail somewhere and reply to an email. It was amazing that I would return my rental car to Avis and in the bus on the way back to the terminal I would get an emailed receipt! Those were exciting times and you really felt “the future is here now”.

My first model was one of the 6000 series with a monochrome screen and could surf very simple mobile websites. The email was very good and I had it for about 3 years until our IT department informed me they couldn’t update it to the current system. Then I had a colour screen that had basic web browsing and it was good too, but strangely the screen was smaller than my previous model and showed less text. Then I was very excited when the “Bold” was first announced. Its screen was higher resolution and the keyboard was sculpted to resemble a guitar fretboard and I play guitar, so it was the “must have” device. I did manage to upgrade to it at work and was thrilled when it arrived.

The first thing I noticed with the Bold was that despite an active marketing campaign, and many ads, the packaging it came in made no mention of the “Bold” brand. I thought it was pretty strange there was just some obscure number on the package and there was no clear indication on any RIM phone as to whether it was a Bold, Curve or whatever. Aren’t they supposed to promote their branding?

Anyway, the Bold was great for about a week until it froze on me while I was doing errands on a Saturday. I was quite surprised and there was no obvious fix. I researched it online and while there was a ‘hard reboot’ you could do with the correct combination of keys, it took a long time so the simplest ‘solution’ was to remove the battery and put it back in. The strangest time this happened was when I was flying for work and the command came to “turn off all electronic devices” and my Bold froze! So as the plane taxied down the runway, I pulled out the battery and dumped everything into the seat pocket in front of me and I was thinking “this is a great cutting edge technology”?

I was also surprised that when I brought up this major problem with the Bold people would say “oh yeah, it does freeze sometimes, doesn’t it?”. After a year they started saying “Oh yeah, that’s the first version. I have the new one and it’s better”. No one ever said “I have the new one and it never freezes”, they just said “It’s much better”. But I kept thinking that a $600 ‘smart phone’ should be working ALL the time.

The Bold’s email application was excellent and the keyboard was great as well. And I loved the “Word Mole” game with the trackball. It was perfect for killing time standing in lineups at airports and elsewhere. But it was a bit frustrating because the camera was not very good, its browser was slow, and it kept freezing every two weeks or so. About a year into my Bold period my wife got an iPhone 3gs and it was wonderful. Its camera was much better, it had tons of apps and when we both looked up something on the internet, the iPhone browser came up with the result page almost instantly while the Bold’s browser churned and churned. It was very frustrating.

Eventually, I upgraded from the Bold to an iPhone 4 which has been an amazing device. In 2.5 years it was frozen perhaps one time because of an app and I just rebooted it. It has been rock solid in all respects. The screen keyboard is ok and I can type pretty quickly. The email on Blackberry devices is better I think because the iPhone uses a web client, but it is pretty decent. Overall, the iPhone is just a far better device and continues to improve.

We bought an iPad (1st generation) and I have a Macbook Air so I’m a fanboy for sure. But the iPad is kind of large and I was intrigued when the Playbook came out a couple of years ago. I liked its size and that it came with an Office document editing suite. I bought one because it was a great size to travel with (and it had been discounted to around $200 which I thought was fair). In fact I lost one on a plane (ouch!) and bought a second one because I had a long trip to Singapore and Australia and needed to read work related material on the plane. I liked that you could read a PDF and then swipe to the side and get a “Word” app, and thumb type some notes. Very handy! Unfortunately, on the trip over my Playbook turned into a “brick” and I could not get it booted again. I found out on the internet this was a ‘known’ problem affecting many people, but one that RIM ignored. I also found out that for some reason RIM had decided that to charge the Playbook, you had to use the actual adaptor and, unlike pretty much every other tablet device, it did NOT charge just using the USB connection to the computer. Who made that ridiculous decision? Best Buy had a 2 week exchange period and I made it back from Australia with about 6 hours to spare (!) and got another one which has worked ok. 

However, I got the Playbook partially because it was promised that it would be updated with the BB10 OS at some point and be compatible with the apps for the phones. This never happened and a few months ago Blackberry essentially dropped support for the Playbook. It remains a good device with nice speakers and good video, but no apps. I cannot watch Netflix on it, nor listen to CBC radio and its DropBox client is not very good. And lately I cannot seem to even connect to “Blackberry World”. When I have the time I think I am going to turn it into an “Android” device.

Our son recently got a BB Z10 which he really likes (of course it helped that he got it at a _very_ discounted rate). It is a solid phone but as many have noted, it’s two years too late.

So my history with RIM/Blackberry has been checkered. Initially they produced revolutionary devices that business people loved. But as smart phones became a commodity other companies caught up and surpassed them. And the quality of their devices decreased, their appetite for innovation took a 2 year break which left them far behind.

I know a few people who worked at RIM/Blackberry and have heard many stories of convoluted reporting structures, the hubris of (relatively) young people in very important positions, chaotic processes implemented for no good reasons and many other problems. Remember this letter from a couple of years back that got so much attention? RIM invented an amazing product and it took off very quickly. It is extremely difficult to grow so fast because you are trying to match demand and create infrastructure while managing your employees. So you hire many brilliant people, many hard working people, but that is not enough. You hire people who have had very little experience, but they have a solid education and you need them. And everyone is making money and the devices are selling, so where is the problem? The Globe and Mail published an excellent in-depth story on how Blackberry failed and it turns out there were many problems.

The bottom line is that it is a tough industry and there are people who say Apple may ultimately fail (or shrink) in the face of the Android onslaught. Who knows? Blackberry still has so much talent, cash, patents and products that we all hope it survives and prospers as a smaller company. It has contributed so much to Canada and to the Kitchener/Waterloo area both from employed so many great people, to giving money towards institutions like the Perimeter Institute, CiGi and so many others. So we all hope for the best even as we open our iPhone and Andriod apps while waiting in line somewhere….

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One response to “My life with Blackberry and all that…..

  1. And now, three years after I wrote this, Blackberry has announced they will no longer make phones! John Chen is a very smart guy and he has already done so much to turn the company around, this is just another good idea. They are now a software company (they always were, but now even more so).

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