It’s only mail and text, but I like it, like it

I remember attending a Rolling Stones concert at the Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles last year. When it was apparent that the final encore had been given and that the event was over, the audience stood to leave and the darkness was punctuated by the twinkling of ten thousand BlackBerries: the Rolling Stones generation checking their inboxes. No cigarette lighters held up in the air to honour the band (there probably wasn’t one smoker in a thousand at the venue), just handsets held up to their own faces to honour the bandwidth. The moment seemed to distill some truth about our culture that simultaneously amused, depressed and delighted me. Go, as they say, figure.

The Canadian company Research In Motion introduced its first BlackBerry, a duplex pager, ten years ago. Since then RIM has established itself and its device as one of the great success stories of the digital age. BlackBerry is a kind of cult – a verb, a metonym, a synecdoche for corporate life on the move.

Under the RIM

For those of you unconnected with business, the way Blackberryists interface with their phones may be unfamiliar. Typically he or she will have been given the handset by their employer. This is not an act of generosity. The device is a kind of leash, a digital ball and chain not far from the electronic tag that convicts on parole are forced to wear. The email and calendar accounts are controlled by the company, via BlackBerry Enterprise Server connections. Each handset can be zapped, nixed and deactivated by the corporate IT people whose hands are ever hovering over the kill switch, awaiting the command from the Fifth Floor. Or so it must seem to some employees. Like the bonds of marriage, the connection can be seen as a welcome tie that binds you with ribbons of gold to the company you love, or as a set of shackles that confine you for ever in a hateful prison from which there is no escape.

There is a civilian way to own a Blackberry, however. You or I can walk into a network provider’s retail operation and sign up for a BlackBerry enabled account.  Nowadays the configuration for this is done Over The Air: fire up the device for the first time, follow the email set-up wizard and voilà! – you’re a BlackBerryist. RIM calls this a BIS (BlackBerry Internet Service) connection, in contrast to the BES (BlackBerry Enterprise Server) connection for the corporate user.

In either case RIM’s own servers ensure that their unique email system works on your device and delivers the authentic BlackBerry experience that many find so addictive. Essentially your handset is in a state of constant connection to these servers, which will ‘push’ emails to you the moment they come in. You can as-good-as-replicate this on a non BB phone by setting it to connect to your email server as frequently as once a minute say, but that wouldn’t be true push and tends to be more wearing on batteries. Google, expanding into all areas of online life as it is, does now offer genuine Exchange server push email to iPhones or other platforms for those with Gmail accounts. I have to say I’ve found this service so far a lot flakier than either BlackBerry or the standard iPhone ‘fetch’ IMAP4 or POP3 connections, just as Google’s CalDAV syncing is also prone to arbitrary disconnection and failure. The Big G get away with this kind of unreliability by being a) free to use and b) in a constant and eternal state of Beta. GoogleSync also offers calendar and contact syncing with a number of platforms including RIM, but we’re wandering from the subject…

The appeal of BlackBerry has always been simple: secure push email without frills. From the corporate point of view it’s a one system solution with an admirable data security record and VPN-style command and control capabilities. For the individual who is hooked on their CrackBerry, it’s all about eliminating frills and fancy folderols and concentrating on text input and output.

For years any clamour for music, video, third-party applications or even basic colour and HTML browsing was met with raised eyebrows. “This is a business tool, not some student gaming platform,” the shamed enquirer would be told in the scandalised tones of a butler who has just been asked for ketchup. Indeed, a proud feature of first, second and third generation BlackBerries was that they had no camera. How did this give bragging rights, you may wonder? Well, it meant that when you visited a factory, a boardroom, a government department or any secure or sensitive area, you didn’t have to check in your phone:  “I’m so important, my work is so sensitive,” was the implied Blackberry boast, “that I have a camera-less phone. Kneel before Zod.”

Over the years RIM have bowed to pressure, reluctantly found that bottle of ketchup in their pantry and, with something of a disapproving sniff, served it up on a silver salver with as good a grace as they could muster. Their somewhat ancient Java operating system has been regularly updated and the product line these days includes phones with cameras, media players and an OTA store called BlackBerry App World. Why, their websites even carry banners now that cry: “Works with Mac straight out of the box!”

Convergence has many faces. A printer, a scanner and a fax machine can easily converge into an All-In-One machine; a hip, fun, flashy media-playing, super-browsing communicator and app-platform like the iPhone can converge with business devices by getting all VPN and Enterprise friendly and a grim corporate tool like the BlackBerry can fluff and frisk itself up with Facebook apps and games and video and ask to be played with. But there are ontological baselines and last year RIM made a disastrous attempt to cross a BlackBerry with an iPhone and came up with one of digital history’s all time dogs, the Storm, an example of those wretched, cursed mutants that slip from the womb, writhe and thrash for an instant as they struggle for air and then die screaming – to the eternal shame of the diabolical genetic manipulators who dared interfere with the natural order of things. The Storm was (and is – for they have been cruel enough to keep it alive) blushmakingly dreadful. It was as if the butler answered the door wearing trainers, ripped jeans and a beanie with a cry of  “Sup, bitch?” Embarrassment all round. I reviewed the benighted beast here and while I wasn’t kind, I hope the glowing encomia I heaped on the BlackBerry Bold in the same blog shows that it I am certainly no BlackBerry hater.

I think RIM have understood that messing with the core appeal of the BlackBerry in this way was a bad idea. It may be that somewhere in the future they will develop a successful hybrid, a phone with either a proprietary (web-based, like Palm’s?) or existing OS which will be capable of delivering the usual BES or BIS connections on a modern, games and app-savvy platform. For the moment they have in recent months concentrated on bringing out true BlackBerry devices that offer the limited bells and whistles that their venerable Java OS affords but which tweak, streamline and refine that system in an elegant and consistent manner. Twitter and Facebook clients, RSS aggregators, utilities and games all work on these new generation devices, but never as well as they would on an iPhone or Android phone. There again, push email won’t work as well on iPhone or Android platforms as on a BlackBerry. For the moment, true convergence between Work and Play hasn’t been effected by either side and the BlackBerry still reigns supreme as the professional business phone par excellence.

Given that: what choices are there? The Bold offers quad band, 3G, Wi-Fi, GPS, a 2MP camera and 1GB of onboard memory (supplemented by micro-SD) and is still a champion device, the complete package. Version 4.6 of the OS gives a smooth, balanced look and feel, there’s power and speed enough.

Speed is an interesting issue for BlackBerry. RIM has always exhibited a schizophrenic attitude towards wireless protocols. The true BB experience doesn’t really require 3G speeds, EDGE is easily good enough for push email and conserves battery power so much better: indeed pointing at the four-fifths full battery icon at day’s end is one of the BlackBerryist’s favourite occupations. But 3G is “today” and not to offer it would seem perverse. It is really most useful for Over The Air downloads of applications and updates or web browsing — only of course the proprietary web browser, while it may have improved, still sucks big time stylie. Too many random fails and “XML is not well-formed” error messages.

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So: what flavours and functions of BlackBerry handset are available? More cut-down models than the Bold offer either a configuration which is 2G only but has WiFi built-in for downloading and power-browsing or a configuration which offers 3G but no WiFi. Of course, in America (and parts of Asia) there is the option of CDMA (more later) which until now has only been available for the senescently gray 8830. Which brings us on to the two models under advisement.

Graceful Curve

The Curve 8900 is the 2G with WiFi option. Its 480 x 360 display is bright, crisp, clear and colourful. Best ever. The operating system is 4.6 for my Vodafone badged model, but it may be that you can update it to 4.7 if you search about and trust one of the fan sites like the ever irreverent but never irrelevant (say that five times fast when drunk) crackberry.com. Everything works well, you can download the iPhone apps that have now been recoded for all the major smartphone platforms: Shazam, Evernote and so forth as well as a slew of Twitter clients (TwitterBerry, TweetCaster and twibble seem to be the most popular) are all available, as are Facebook, the Google suite of mobile apps, dictionaries and language learning apps from Beiks, Oxford Duden and Collins, and games that can be chosen from eight categories ranging from Arcade to Strategy. That once frosty butler is now in a muscle vest, boogeying and writhing on the dance-floor in the most unlikely fashion.

The Curve 8900 can be regarded as a replacement for the highly successful 8300, 8310 and 8320 Curves (the later versions adding WiFi and/or GPS). Also this year, just to confuse everyone further, RIM have produced the 8520 – a low end EDGE Curve that comes with a 2.0MP camera and WiFi, no GPS and no 3G but which still manages to excite interest and curiosity in that it features an optical trackpad to replace the now venerable trackball. The trackball first appeared in 2006: a white granular navigation sphere that gave the neat little BlackBerry 8100 line its name of ‘Pearl’. While it has undoubtedly been a great success, most users report that after time the trackball loses precision: dirt + grease = grinding paste = poor performance. It is also frankly a matter of good fortune as to whether you get a good one or a laggardly imprecise little bleeder out of the box, so delicate is the mechanism. So my advice to anyone buying any BlackBerry is try it out first: check the running of the trackball.

Back to our Curve 8900: this comes in a configuration that includes a 3.2 MP camera, video camera and audio recorder, various other bundled goodies like the obligatory BlackBerry Maps and Docs To Go (pay for full functionality) and  one’s sense of it really comes down to how well you get on with the 35 key, backlit keyboard. It’s full QWERTY and once the fingers are used to it (a much shallower learning curve than that necessary to accustom them to an Android, iPhone or Palm handset), they can fly back and forth inputting at furious speeds, which is just how BlackBerryists like it. The superb fully editable glossary (Apple, I’m on my knees, please take note) can increase the input speed enormously. If you have a regular home and work WiFi network then the lack of 3G really isn’t a problem. This neat, elegant and highly desirable smartphone is slimmer, shorter, narrower and a whole ounce (27 grammes) lighter than the Bold. Available in the UK from all the major network providers and through the usual retail outlets.

The Tour (left) and the Curve (right), with inexplicable intervening turtle (centre)
The Tour (left) and the Curve (right), with inexplicable intervening turtle (centre)

Grand Tour

If you live and work and the United States of America, you may have become attached to the CDMA protocol, unavailable in Europe. Many Americans (rightly, for the most part) bemoan the backwardness of the United States when it comes to telecoms. This is obviously less to do with American technological know-how than with the problems of infrastructure presented by so vast a landmass. The US can boast however, choice in basic wireless protocols. There is the one we in Europe are familiar with: GSM (incorporating GPRS, EDGE and 3G in the form of HSPA and UMTS) and there is the alternative available in the US and parts of Asia: CDMA. Typically CDMA handsets do not contain SIM cards (unless they are sold as “global” phones which can also speak GSM) their connection to the network provider – Sprint, Verizon, AT&T etc. – is built in. Their equivalent of 3G is CDMA 2000, or EV-DO (standing for Evolution Data Optimised) and is generally considered by aficionados to be faster, stabler and more reliable. Certainly when I have used CDMA phones in large American cities I have been extremely impressed.

The all new 9630 Tour replaces the silver 8830. Like its predecessor the Tour is dual mode, allowing the American traveller to access GSM networks when abroad. My Verizon Tour worked straight out of the box and with almost alarming speed.

For most users the modality of wireless protocol is no more central to their experience than whether their car engine is diesel or petrol these days. Never mind what goes on under the hood, what are the day to day differences between the Curve and Tour in terms of use? Well, aside from the fact that the Tour comes without WiFi but with 3G, the differences are really quite small: the same familiar candybar form factor, though with darker skirting on the Tour. They both enjoy the one physical feature of the Storm worth keeping, the  shiny black sloping ‘roof’ where the lock and mute buttons live. There is the same superbly bright and clear 480 x 360 display on each and the same 3.2MP camera (although there is the dazzling option of being able to buy a Tour without a camera which will undoubtedly impress your friends) and the same suite of bundled applications (give or take a network specific doodad here or there). The Tour is a mite heavier and a snidge thicker than the Curve and being 3G is more demanding on the (identical) DX-1 battery. I prefer the slightly more scalloped keys on the Tour’s keyboard. The sharper edges offer a better tactile feedback which imparts greater confidence and ultimately therefore, greater speed.

If I lived and worked in the United States and visited Europe from time to time I would certainly choose the Tour as my BlackBerry of choice. Meanwhile, in Europe there is no reason not to be drawn to the Curve. Just don’t even think of getting a Storm. Unless you enjoy swearing and throwing things out of the window. Which some people do.

Before the year is out RIM’s OS 5.0 should be available (it already is if you are prepared to hunt about and live with a beta) and we can also expect the possibility that at any moment they will offer a Curve with trackpad but no GPS and a Tour with WiFi and 3G but no trackpad and a Pearl with EDGE but trackpad and GPS but but no WiFi and another with …. oi, you get the idea.

Coming next … a look at the Palm Pre and LG Watch Phone.

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