Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Breaking Up With BlackBerry

244024987_2861c1c4d5 I bought a BlackBerry in 2007, right around the time people started using the term “smartphone” to describe cellular devices that let you call your girlfriend, respond to emails and check the Giants score while waiting for the baggage carousel to spit out your suitcase. Before this, the popular term of art was simply “BlackBerry;” I bought the Pearl, a slimmer version of the classic Curve with a tiny glowing trackball for menu navigation.

Three years later, I’m determined to never buy another BlackBerry. I’m not alone – a recent Nielsen survey shows only 42 percent of current users say they would buy another BlackBerry. Presumably, the other 68 percent would rather buy Apple’s iPhone or Motorola’s Droid instead.

BlackBerry was the first smartphone, but it’s long since ceased to be the best. It’s been an underwhelming piece of hardware all along, turns out, frustrating its all-too-trusting users who wanted to see what “this BlackBerry thing” was all about.

Me, specifically.

The Rise

Remember pagers? The first BlackBerry, released in 1999, was an ugly two-way pager with a QWERTY keyboard and monochrome LCD screen. The smartphone, released in 2002, was a pear-shaped device with a thumbs-only keyboard and a color screen. Unlike the Palm Treo, you could type on a BlackBerry without wanting to kill yourself. You didn’t need to jab about with a stylus, either – all navigation was performed with a scroll wheel.

The first BlackBerrys stuck to the basics: email, text messaging and phone calls. The device was quickly adopted by government and corporate types – you know, the kinds who start twitching if they don’t get an email or text every five minutes – because of its efficient and secure email. Instead of reaching out to periodically poll a provider like Gmail, the phone “pushed” emails, routing them through servers owned by parent company Research In Motion (RIM).

Before I rip the phone apart, it’s important to know that BlackBerrys are, and will likely remain, popular among said government and corporate types. When a copyright infringement suit against RIM slogged on too long, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief asking that RIM be allowed to continue its services – too many federal employees depended on BlackBerrys to communicate internally.

For snappy emailing, the BlackBerry was the best game in town. Until the first iPhone dropped in 2007, it was practically the only game in town. Not wanting to buy into AT&T’s infamously poor coverage (or spend many hundreds of dollars on an iPhone), I bought a BlackBerry Pearl. Peeling off the protective plastic, I thought: The future is now.

The disappointment wasn’t much later.

Rob vs. Pearl; or, Malice Mode

As a college senior, I took an optimistic assessment of my needs: In my coming professional life, I would need to be reachable at all times. I would need to be able to access a map of, say, San Francisco, Calif. at a moment’s notice. I would need to be capable of reading Thomas Friedman’s latest editorial while bored on the toilet.

The Pearl could do all of these things (and if Friedman wasn’t to taste, there was always Brickbreaker). Configuring email was a cinch. Within hours, I was snapping 1.8 megapixel pictures of my dinner and shooting to a friend across the country. Or trying to – on highest detail settings, the images were too big to flit through the Multimedia Message Service. I had to figure that out myself.

As the months wore on, the Pearl’s resume of troubling habits grew steadily. Chief among them was a tendency to randomly wipe my recent calls, unsaved emails and text messages. In what I dubbed Malice Mode, the phone would also delete any incoming messages before I could be alerted. The only solution was performing a hard restart, which involves removing the battery, putting it back in and texting myself to make sure the phone did what it was supposed to do (goddamnit).

My first Pearl met its demise after falling from my pocket – I think I was impersonating a butterfly at the time, so I’ll shoulder the blame. I was happy to get a new Pearl, perhaps one with fewer idiosyncrasies.

It lasted a week before slipping into Malice Mode. I figured I was cursed.

Then the seal on the screen broke. Dust motes and fibers slipped under the plastic panel, and within a week, the phone looked grimy and disgusting. I once made the mistake of answering a call after a workout. Now my sweat is permanently trapped under my screen like plasma on a slide.

It’s entirely possible my nasty screen is a singular event. But every BlackBerry user has suffered the same, clunky software I’ve contended with for years. The phones have always been underpowered –while current Droid models ship with a 1 gigahertz CPU, current BlackBerrys come neutered with a 624 megahertz chip. But the counterintuitive operating system was always better at drowning users in nested menus than it was at helping them, you know, use their expensive smartphone.

The words “Say a command” are all too familiar to any longtime BlackBerry user – they’re heard anytime the voice dialing button is accidently pressed, which is all the time, should you forget to lock your keypad. Fidget during a meeting? “Say a command.”

An infuriating interface hindered the BlackBerry’s most competent feature – email. The texting program allowed you to edit words, scrolling backwards to change a letter. This was important when forming unrecognized compound words like “dickbag” or “asshole.” When it came to email addresses – few of which, if any, pop up in the dictionary – the option to edit words on-the-fly is inexplicably gone. If you want to turn “ahellthirl13” into “shellygirl13,” you’ll do it letter by letter, deleting tediously until “a” is an “s,” “t” is a “y” and so on.

It’s the digital equivalent of water torture. I don’t expect my smartphone to read my mind, but I expect it to not sabotage the simple act of writing an email – which, remember, is supposed to be the BlackBerry’s vindicating feature.

The Fall?

The sky appears to be falling for RIM. Even after stocks recovered from a multi-billion dollar loss – an entire country threatening to ban your phone over security issues will do something to your Wall Street value, apparently – the future doesn’t look bright and shiny for the BlackBerry. After the spectacular failure of the Storm, a would-be iPhone killer that my brother refused to donate to charity because he “wouldn’t want to inflict it on anyone else,” the BlackBerry is quickly losing its once-monstrous market share. The Torch, released last week, was received by tech reviewers with a great big “meh.”

The operating system was still clumsy. The browser still sucked. The screen was still grainy and low-resolution when compared to competitors. The brand which so badly needed a shot in the arm got a limp high-five instead.

Even if BlackBerrys remain popular among the chronically corporate, I’m afraid the rest of us have already left the brand to die. So long, Blackberry. It was fun – when it didn’t completely suck.


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