Abhik Sen: Us QWERTY junkies

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 18, 2013 20:21 hrs

One’s always waiting for the next best thing. But for those of us hooked on BlackBerrys, the wait seems endless, as we stoically endure Research In Motion’s (RIM’s) misadventures the past few years. Perhaps salvation is in sight with BlackBerry 10, releasing globally on January 30. Perhaps, with BB10, RIM will finally solve all its woes (and that of users in love with their BlackBerry devices).

Gone are the days when the smartest of smartphone users would pull out this broad, brick-like device from their pockets, which would magically connect them to office (okay, email, spreadsheets documents) while lesser mortals would look on in awe. Nowadays, when I pull out my BlackBerry at a public place, I’m met with the look of pity once reserved for those pulling up in a battered Premier Padmini at a five-star hotel — poor fellow, he’s stuck in another era.

But I strive on, unaffected by the glitz and glamour of the iPhones and the Androids. I have my reasons. RIM still makes the best QWERTY devices, the contraption on your phone that resembles a computer keyboard. And it still is the best bet if one has to file an article while on the move.

It wasn’t always like this. BlackBerry was known for its sturdy devices, which integrated seamlessly with enterprise software. Thanks to security concerns, it didn’t have a camera. Phones were simple affairs. One used them to make calls, send texts, and, in case of smart devices like BlackBerry, access email.

Soon, high-end phones started sporting cameras and BlackBerry followed suit. RIM also ramped up the multimedia capabilities of its devices to keep pace with other handsets, but its efforts seemed half-hearted. It was a Serious Company for Serious Business after all. But everything changed in 2007 with the launch of Apple’s iPhone — a touch-screen device with great multimedia features, which, subsequently, worked great for enterprises as well. RIM’s immediate response was a disaster called the Storm. Regular BlackBerry users hated the fact that it didn’t have the familiar keyboard while others recognised Apple’s product was miles ahead. RIM finally produced a brilliant product, the Bold, but then lost its way.

The company, it seemed, suffered from a split personality. On the one hand, it had products that exemplified its core capabilities — but were more work-oriented and boring to the younger generation. On the other, the firm wanted to cater to the younger crowd with devices that had features over and above their core capabilities.

Soon, Android muscled in, and RIM was forced to compete with phones half its price. Out came sleek devices, clamshells, one even designed by Porsche. But nothing caught the market’s fancy. BlackBerry’s App World could not match in numbers the competing ecosystems. And most users anyway downloaded the apps when BlackBerry gave away free apps to soothe the harried nerves of its customers — as RIM suffered unprecedented service failures and fought local governments over letting authorities access users’ data.

But I’ve had the opportunity to check out BB10, and I’m impressed. Even a hardcore QWERTY keypad junkie like me has been left impressed by BB10’s touch keyboard and multi-tasking abilities. Thankfully, the firm seems to have invested its time and money in what it knows to do best — make a very capable device for work. And RIM hasn’t given up on physical keypads.

On the beta devices, parallel processing was excellent and a feature called Peek keeps one abreast of all that’s happening even if one’s using any other application. But we’ll have to wait and watch if the battery life of the devices is enough for a day. At the various developer jams, we’ve seen some popular apps for other ecosystems work seamlessly on BB10. And the last beta device we saw also had a superb camera and multimedia features.

RIM has also promised something with its new enterprise software. With bring-your-own-device being popular with many offices, BlackBerry Balance will act to separate home and work. So that when you exit your current job, “the CTO can wipe out all data about the company as you exit the door while all your personal data remain safe,” said Annie Mathew, RIM’s head of alliances, during a recent chat.

BB10 does run the risk of becoming another PlayBook, its iPad competitor, with excellent hardware and gesture control way ahead of its time. But it couldn’t decide if it was meant for a serious professional who also wanted to play or a customer who wanted their work done on a playful device. And it wasn’t worth it if you didn’t have a BlackBerry.

RIM, as well as its customers, have pinned all their hopes on BB10. It could be RIM’s ticket back to the top; it might be the last nail in the coffin for the company. It better work. BlackBerry owes it to us QWERTY keypad junkies.

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